When the Penticton Vees beat Vernon 3-1 Monday night to advance to the BCHL final, they did the Chilliwack Chiefs a big favour.
The Vees are hosting this year’s Western Canada Cup, gathering the champions of the B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba junior A hockey leagues at the South Okanagan Events Centre from April 29 to May 7.
Because Penticton is the host, they’re already in and that means Chilliwack is in too.
The winner and runner-up in the Western Canada Cup will both qualify for this year’s Royal Bank Cup tournament, taking place May 13-21 in Cobourg, ON.
Technically, the Chiefs could get swept in the final and still be in the mix for a national title.
“The goal is always to win your league championship and usually that’s what it takes to advance to the Western Canada Cup,” Chilliwack head coach Jason Tatarnic said Monday morning. “But it’s nice to know that we can play Penticton, and if things don’t work out for whatever reason, we’re going to get a second chance.
“Personally, the teams I’ve had have always gone through the front door, and we’re going to play to win, but if it ends up that we have to go through the back door I’ll take it as a welcome change.”
Chilliwack hasn’t won a BCHL championship since 2002 and Penticton is going to be a very, very tough out.
The Vees aren’t the offensive powerhouse of years past. This year’s team is winning with rigid structure and one of the league’s top goaltenders.
Matthew Robson allowed less than two goals per game (1.94) through 49 regular season appearances, posting six shutouts and a .930 save percentage.
Penticton gave up 36 fewers goals than Chilliwack (129 to 156), and help themselves by not taking penalties.
The Vees faced a league-low 203 power plays against and had the league’s fifth best penalty kill percentage at 81.8 per cent, forcing opponents to beat them five-on-five.
The flipside is Chilliwack scored 54 more goals than Penticton (243 to 189) without a ton of PPs, and should feel good about the even-strength matchup.
The Chiefs have a league-high 59 goals in the playoffs, averaging 3.69 goals per game, while the Vees average 2.5.
Jordan Kawaguchi and Kohen Olischefski are numbers one and three in BCHL playoff scoring.
“And when you talk about our depth, Jake Smith scores two goals in the last game against Victoria, and we’ve got a lot of guys who can score,” Tatarnic added.
Penticton beat the Chiefs in both of their regular season meetings.
In late November a dead-tired Chilliwack team was out-shot 40-14 in a 3-2 overtime loss at the SOEC.
In late February Tatarnic had to dip deep into his goalie reserves with Mark Sinclair and Brendan Barry sidelined by injuries and Mathieu Caron unavailable. The coach started Josh Bolding, who surrendered a couple softies in a 3-0 loss at Prospera Centre.
Tatarnic will get a key player back for the final. Kale Kane returns to the lineup, adding to Chilliwack’s already-formidable depth.
“He’s an impact guy who can score, kill penalties and play a lot of hard minutes, and he’s been really good for us for two years,” Coach T said. “He wanted to play last weekend but we delayed it to make sure he’s ready.
“He’s been itching to get back in there.”
See Jacob Bestebroer’s column on page 19 for more Chiefs/Vees analysis.