The Jackson Hole Moose hockey team and the Sun Valley (Idaho) Suns have a history of high-octane, physical showdowns, and this past weekends series certainly fit the bill, serving as the newest installment of the seasoned border rivalry.
Playing in front of a lively — but limited — road crowd in Hailey, Idaho, the Moose (8-2) split their two-game road series, defeating the Suns in Friday’s series opener 4-2 before falling 6-3 in Saturday’s series finale. Due to injuries, holiday travel and illnesses, the Moose were shorthanded over the weekend — limiting their line depth — but the able bodies picked up the slack in their absence and rose to the occasion against one of the top teams in the Black Diamond Hockey League.
Needing strong play in the net against a high-powered Suns offense, starting goalie Robbie Leslie turned in one of his finest performances of the young season, catching the attention of teammates.
“Robbie Leslie just played amazing,” forward Drew Akins said. “Without his effort, I don’t know if we would have won [Friday’s] game.”
Leslie was able to hold off the Suns’ offense until the third period on Friday, giving the Moose plenty of time to fire away at the opposing defense. Akins struck for two goals in the victory, while A.J. Sanders and 13-year Moose vet Brian Upesleja both joined in on the scoring to build up a comfortable lead late in the night.
In Saturday’s game two, the Suns came out fast, striking for three goals in the opening period and putting the Moose in a difficult spot, playing from behind the entirety of the night.
“They definitely came out stronger on Saturday, and they were outplaying us a bit,” Akins said. “The first period they got up 3-0 on us, and then we kind of clawed our way back, but it was just too little, too late.”
The weekend games kicked off a home-and-home series that will bring the Suns to Jackson on New Year’s Eve. Expecting physicality, the season series debut certainly lived up to its expectations.
“Every time we play Sun Valley, it’s pretty par for the course,” Akins said. “It felt like any other year when we play them ... there’s no love lost between us and them. We’re friends with some of those guys off the ice, but when we’re on the ice with them, it’s definitely a competitive game.”
Giving off a sense of a “playoff-style” of hockey, Akins enjoys having a team like the Suns who the Moose can look forward to every year. Like the Moose, the Suns don’t see much turnover from year to year, letting the teams become familiar with each other. The Moose and Suns will play their final scheduled series over New Year’s weekend, but there is a strong possibility that the two clubs could end up facing each other in the BDHL Championship as well.
“We definitely circle those games on our calendar and look forward to them every year,” Akins said. “They’re always pretty even. It’s pretty typical that we got the split because that’s usually the way it is.”
With two of the Moose’s four road trips out of the way, the players can begin to settle in as they begin a much more constant schedule at the tail end of the holidays, playing every weekend with 12 consecutive home games. With the long home stand ahead of them, the Moose can focus more on their progression as a team, and less on travel to and from games.
“I think this is where we’ll really fine tune our game and get into midseason form,” defenseman Brad Improta said. “I think it’s a good thing versus the inconsistent schedule early on in the season where we’ll have two or three weeks stretches of no games. I think everyone’s starting to get there with their conditioning, where they’re back to where they were in prior seasons.”
Playing the Suns in back-to-back series, fans can expect an even more physical series as the Moose return several key components to their roster on Friday, Dec. 31, when they play at Snow King Sports and Events Center.
“When we get on the ice with them, it’s definitely a competitive game.” — Drew Akins moose player