The Quesnel Kangaroos will travel south on Highway 97 this Saturday (Feb. 9) to face off against the Williams Lake Stampeders in the first round of the CIHL playoffs.
Their confidence is high, having just clinched the league title after a successful northern road trip, where they were able to beat the Terrace River Kings and the Kitimat Ice Demons.
Team captain Waylon L’Heureux, says winning the league is definitely a big accomplishment.
“It’s something we’ve been working towards for a long time,” he says.
“A lot of guys worked really hard for it.”
He says the team’s success is due to the players placing a lot of emphasis on consistently practising at a high level and improving their skating this season.
While the squad is pleased with where they stand, the Roos will not be satisfied if they sputter in the playoffs.
As travel is a major consideration in the league — Williams Lake and Prince Rupert are almost 1,000 kilometres apart — the southern-most teams, despite finishing first and second, will be facing off against each other in the first round.
Terrace and Kitimat will play a three-game series to determine who will face the Prince Rupert Rampage in another three- game series.
Once the ice shavings have settled, the winner of the north will battle the southern victor.
Quesnel won the season series against Williams Lake 4-3 this year and will have the home advantage.
After their first match this Saturday, the teams will play a second game in Quesnel on Feb. 16, and if the series is knotted, there will be a tiebreaker Feb. 17.
Both squads can put the puck in the net.
Williams Lake scored a league-high 113 goals this season. Quesnel was third with 88, although they have the league’s top scorer, their assistant captain, Alessio Tomasetti, who lit the lamp 18 times in 16 games.
He and Justin (Red) Fulton are long-time Roos who finished the year second and fifth in points, with 31 and 28 respectively.
Their offensive counterparts on the Stamps will be Nathan Zurak and Zach Sternburg, who were the third- and fourth -place point getters in the CIHL for the 2018-19 season, with 30 and 29.
Attempting to keep the score down by stopping as many pucks as they can will be Willie Sellars for the Stamps and hometown favourite Brandon Peacock for the Roos.
The two goaltenders share a goals-against-average of 4.02, but Sellars has a slightly higher save percentage at .882 to Peacock’s .857.
What it’s going to take
“We’re just going to have to have full team efforts,” says L’Heureux.
“We play best when we run a full 20-man squad, so we’ve got to have full commitment out of the guys.”
The captain admits that having to face their rivals in the first round is challenging but says they have the drive to step up to the challenge.
“I think it just comes naturally in the dressing room with the rivalry that we have with them,” he says. “It’s been a strong rivalry for the full nine years [we’ve been playing each other] and you’ve just got to come to the rink mentally prepared and ready to play.”
The captain is also calling on the folks in Quesnel to continue showing up to games and cheering hard.
“It’s really good to bring our hometown support back.
“Everybody in this town supports us so well, so we think it would be nice to bring them back a championship and be able to put a banner up in our new arena.”
Tomasetti says the core guys are going to be a key part of any victory too.
“Way (Captain), Nick Tomasetti (Alessio’s brother), Curtis Gassoff, myself, Justin Fulton; these are the guys who come to the rink every day and want to play hockey.”
He says they set an example for some of the younger team members who have bolstered the lineup in recent years.
“We now have more than two lines on this team,” Tomasetti says. “There are three to four lines that can play every night, and that’s what’s got us to first place in the league.”
To continue to have success in the coming weeks, he says the squad needs to take advantage of opportunities on the offensive end and restrict mistakes in their zone.
That will require buy-in to a system put together by first-year head coach Harley Gilks.
“It comes right down from the coaches to the players, and everyone’s on board with everything we do, so morale is high.”
Tomasetti says Gilks has been easy to work with.
“The coaching has been huge,” he says. “He’s played in the league, so he knows how to run the team.
“We could come back in the finals to win the championship,” Tomasetti says when asked what the ideal situation would be at the end of this season.
His captain agrees.
“If we win, we will win at home,” he says. “We have home ice right to the end.”
L’Heureux thinks about it for a second.
“That would be huge, winning at home,” he says with a grin. “Since just before Christmas, that’s all we’ve worked for.
“The arena would be crazy!”