After a much-needed reprieve, the North Okanagan Knights are ready for Round 3 of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League playoffs.
The week off gave head coach Kris Mallette’s injury-riddled crew time to heal as they prepare for the Okanagan/Shuswap Conference final against the Osoyoos Coyotes.
Forwards Matty Saharchuk and Brett Hawrys, who both missed time in the Knights’ four-game sweep of the Sicamous Eagles in the Doug Birks Division final, will be ready for action as Games 1 and 2 go tonight (7:00) and Saturday at Nor-Val Sports Centre.
Defenceman Dylan Bowen is out for the season with a high-ankle sprain.
“That time off was good,” said Mallette. “The guys are really upbeat. Having the four days off, the guys were itching to get back. They were hooting and hollering at practice, which is good to see.”
Mallette said the loss of Bowen, a Lumby product, is a blow for North Okanagan’s defensive corps, but he’s confident in his top four of David London, Nathan Browne, Mac Ferner and Dryden Profeit. Vernon call-up Matt Halvorson and Salmon Arm’s Darien Head round out the top six.
Blaine Caton, a 15-year-old Vernon native, will serve as the Knights’ 12th forward, and after a stellar performance against Sicamous, Calgary’s Austin Buzzell will start for the Knights. The 19-year-old leads all goalies in the postseason in goal-against average (1.33) and save percentage (.962).
“What Austin did for us in those three (last) games was nothing shy of brilliance,” said Mallette, who used the time off to scout the Coyotes-Kelowna Chiefs series.
Osoyoos knocked off the division-winning Chiefs with a 2-1 overtime win in Game 6 Tuesday night. They are led by 20-year-old Garrett Kucher (10-7-17 in 11 games), who headlines a solid crop of forwards.
“Osoyoos played well,” said Mallette. “When it comes down to it, they had more scoring chances and whoever they had in net was keeping Kelowna at bay.
“They come with a lot of speed and they try to make life difficult for defencemen. If they’re going to overcommit we need to come back just as hard.”
Games 3 and 4 go Monday and Tuesday night (7:35) at the Sunbowl.
Meanwhile, the host Castlegar Rebels advanced to the Kootenay Conference final after outlasting the Beaver Valley Nitehawks 5-4 in a Game 7 OT thriller Wednesday night.
The Hawks blew a pair of two-goal leads before the Rebels’ Diego Bartlett pocketed the OT winner. Castlegar will face the Golden Rockets, who brushed back the Fernie Ghostriders 4-2 in their division final.