It was a milestone night for Fred Harbinson as the Penticton Vees picked up their fourth straight win, a 5-2 victory on Wicked Wednesday against the injured Coquitlam Express.
A crowd of 3,003 was on hand to witness Harbinson, the Vees coach-general manager, earn his 400th career win as a BCHL coach. And it all started with a strong start and Grant Cruikshank burying his 15th goal of the season, the first of two on the night. His second would become the winner.
“We played really well. We had a good start, which was crucial,” said Cruikshank, who earned the first star. “We wanted to get off to a good start. Get lots of shots and we had a really solid game.”
After challenging his players to have a better start, Harbinson said they did just that. Goalie Lawson Fenton was peppered with 15 shots. Cruikshank beat him at 14:02 on a wrist shot.
“We were real strong in the first period,” said Harbinson. “Our transition game really gave Coquitlam a tough go.”
Vees rookie goalie Nolan Hildebrand faced 19 shots, 11 came in the final frame. The Vees were defensively strong not giving the Express opportunities.
“I thought our D-core was probably the best we’ve played as a whole,” said Harbinson. “I thought Hildebrand did a outstanding job coming in from not having played in a while.”
Hildebrand’s last start came in a win over the Merritt Centennials on Oct. 21.
“Those are hard games to play in,” said Harbinson, of Hildebrand not getting tested a lot. “In the second period when he hadn’t seen a lot of action, it was 1-0 and he makes a heck of a save on a bang-bang play in front. To stay focused I thought he did a real good job.”
Hildebrand said he played a strong game and was happy with his performance.
“I thought it was one of my better starts of the season,” said Hildebrand, who was excited to make his home debut on a Wicked Wednesday. “I think the team played really well. They stepped up their game. they made it pretty easy for me.”
Hildebrand did add it can be challenging to play with the low amount of shots he faced.
Express coach Barry Wolfe said his team played OK, considering they have eight injured players at home. Of the 19 he dressed, four players were affiliates.
“Playing a team like this in their building, is tough to play them at any time even when you’re full strength,” he said. “We chipped away. We made a few mistakes that ended up in our net. We take those back it’s a little closer game.”
After two periods, the Vees had given Hildebrand a 4-0 lead to work with. The Express, last in the Mainland Division, could only muster eight shots, including three in the middle frame.
Eight minutes into the second period, the Vees put massive pressure on the Express. They scored three goals in under two minutes. Defenceman Joseph Leahy doubled the Vees lead to 2-0 when he buried a rebound in close after Fenton kicked out a shot. Owen Sillinger and Turner Ripplinger were credited with assists. The Vees didn’t give the PA announcer time to announce the goal before the lead went up 3-0. The Vees caused a breakdown on the Express defence, which allowed Ty Barnstable to score his third goal of the season into a gaping net. James Miller and Jared Nash collected assists. Not long after, Ryley Risling nearly made it 4-0. The Vees captain, Nicholas Jones, did at 10:38 when he hammered home a rebound past Fenton from 20 feet out in the low circle for his seventh tally. Chris Klack and Duncan Campbell picked up assists.
“We just try to keep playing the same way and hope that the dam would finally break,” said Harbinson. “That’s what happened. We were playing the right way. We kept telling our guys not to get frustrated and stay with the plan.”
The Vees added one more goal in the third with Risling’s seventh. The Express broke Hildebrand’s shutout at 6:35 as Blake Hayward buried a rebound. The Express made it 5-2 with 11 seconds remaining on a goal by Luca Leone.
With the win, the Vees improve to 18-3-0.
Harbinson on his milestone win: “We’ve had some great players here, great teams. It means I’ve probably been here a long time.”
It is special for the Calgary native.
“Yeah, you know what. When I first got here, you don’t anticipate winning that many games,” said Harbinson. “I’ve been blessed with some great assistant coaches. Some great support staff all the way through. Ownership and of course the players. The players are the ones that win the hockey games. It means that we’ve had a successful organization.”
The Vees wrap-up their three-game home stand Friday when they host the Vernon Vipers (9-10-0-2) at the SOEC; game time is 7 p.m. Canadian rock band The Trews will be performing in a special Remembrance Day ceremony.