Ranked No. 6 out of 129 teams in the Canadian Junior A Hockey League, the Penticton Vees go into the BCHL Interior Division playoff final as slight favourites over the Vernon Vipers.
The Vees took six of seven regular-season games – all of them close – and led the league with 44 wins and 91 points.
The Vipers, however, just swept the Merritt Centennials to open the post-season dance and were in a similar spot last year before stunning the Vees in Game 7. The series opener goes Saturday, 6 p.m., in Penticton.
Dynamo centre Liam Finlay perhaps knows best what makes the Vees tick. The Kelowna product spent 10 games in Penticton before being traded to Vernon for the rights to Dakota Conroy of the WHL Prince Albert Raiders.
“I do know a ton about them,” said Finlay, who led the Snakes with 64 points as a rookie. “They’re a great team and it’s a great rivalry. We got a few bounces our way and I think we pressured them more than we did previous games and Danny (goalie Todosychuk) played extremely well for us that game (Vernon’s lone win).”
Minnesota marvel Hunter Miska, who is eligible for this June’s NHL entry draft, topped the BCHL wth a 1.88 GAA and 9.31 save percentage. He stoned the Vipers over and over this season.
“He’s really acrobatic so it’s tough to beat him anywhere, but I think we just got to get traffic and get in front of him,” said Finlay.
Viper captain Riley Guenther flashed a perma-grin when recalling the overtime goal by Michael McNicholas last March 22 before 3,142 fans at the South Okanagan Events Centre.
“I had just gotten off the ice,” said Guenther, who hails from Calgary. “That was a game and moment that I’ll never forget for sure. It was a hard series. They fought us really hard, we fought back and were able to get that goal at the end.”
The Vipers finished 18 points behind Penticton, and Guenther says Vernon has a solid strategy to shock the Vees again.
“The teams are very similar to last year,” he said. “We’re gonna have to play physical, real aggressive against them. They’re real skilled so we can’t let them get time and space because they’ll take advantage of it. We’re gonna have to push the pace on them and make it a hard game for them.”
As for scoring on Miska, Guenther offered: “We gotta traffic, get in his head, make it hard for him to see pucks. Throw pucks and bodies there all the time and eventually we’ll get some greasy ones on him and hopefully he’’ll crack.”
Said Miska: “They have a really strong offensive group. A lot of hard shots. I just have to control my rebounds and play my game.”
Miska, who posted 34 wins, is well aware that speedy Texan Thomas Aldworth pocketed 37 snipes for Vernon.
“He’s got a pretty good one timer on their powerplay. He’s one of their key guys. Liam Coughlin has a pretty good shot too. They have a lot of depth on their team.”
Guenther and alternate captains TJ Dumonceaux, Coughlin and Kenny Citron are doing their best to keep the younger Vipers grounded.
“Everybody’s really excited in there. I don’t think anyone really expected us to sweep Merritt. That just gave a huge morale jump so we’re jumping at the bit to get after Pen. They’re (rookies) just as excited as we are. I’m not too worried about them. Our young guys have been good for us all year. They know how to play and they’ve been in playoff series before.”
Coughlin was on the ice when McNicholas netted the winner at 2:06 of OT, but wasn’t sure if he drew an assist (he didn’t).
“It was the best experience of my life for hockey,” said the Edmonton Oiler draft. “Just being on the ice for that goal was amazing.”
Coughlin said the Vipers prospered and grew when Mark Ferner took over as head coach early in the season.
“Ferner pushes us every day conditioning-wise and we have high confidence right now. You have probably the two best teams in the BCHL going at it again and it‘s gonna be a grind and a lot of fun.”
Conroy, who played alongside Oiler first-round pick Leon Draisaitl in Prince Albert last year, rang up three goals and six assists to spark Penticton past West Kelowna Warriors in their five-game semifinal series. He’s anxious to face Vernon.
“Just the rivalry that has been co-existing forever is exciting,” said Conroy, a 20-year-old from Edmonton. “That’s all you really hear about. The fans and everyone is excited about us playing Vernon. I think it’s time this year that we just got to strap on the boots and get to work.”
Mitch Newsome, who recorded the triple-overtime winner against West Kelowna in Game 4, says the Vees are also feeling pretty good about themsevles these days.
“Vernon is a really good team. We are coming in with some confidence. They have a lot of skill up front. They have a couple of guys who can move their feet, shifty guys. Finlay and Aldsworth. You have to look out for those guys.”
Games 2 is Sunday, 6 p.m., in Penticton. The third and fourth tilts go Tuesday and Wednesday nights at Kal Tire Place. The rest of the series, if required, goes Friday, Saturday and Sunday, alternating between the two cities.
Guenther, Citron, Coughlin, Dumonceaux and Todoyschuk are Viper returnees from last year’s final. Cody DePourcq, Matt Serratore, Jack Ramsey, Miska, Steen Cooper, Jarod Hilderman, Patrick Sexton, Cam Amantea and Riley Alferd are back with the Vees.
Vernon’s Spencer Hewson scored shorthanded, into an empty net with 35 seconds left, as the Nanaimo Clippers iced the Alberni Valley Bulldogs 3-1 in Game 7 of the Island semifinal series Wednesday night at Frank Crane Arena.
It was Hewson’s second goal of the series.
Brogan O’Brien scored twice as the host Prince George Spruce Kings edged the Langley Rivermen 3-2 Tuesday night to take that series in six games.
Carmine Buono scored at 10:21 of overtime as the Powell River Kings shaded the Victoria Grizzlies 5-4 Tuesday night to take that series 4-1.