Separation has begun in the BCHL playoffs as the pretenders are left behind from the contenders.
The Penticton Vees swept aside the Quesnel Millionaires, as did the Salmon Arm SilverBacks with the Merritt Centennials (my apologies to Centennials coach Luke Pierce if you’re reading this, my sucking up comes later). In the Coastal Conference, the Surrey Eagles got rid of the Coquitlam Express, outscoring them by a 18-5 margin, while the Langley Chiefs sent the Alberni Valley Bulldogs home in four, outscoring them 19-11, with two games decided in extra time.
The Vees series went as I expected, though the Millionaires put pressure on in Game 3 only to blow it. The Vees found a way to win and kudos to them. However, in round two, they will get a true test with the SilverBacks. Hopefully James Polk, who scored nine times in the regular season, already has three in the playoffs, doesn’t have similar results as Stefan Nicholishen. The former Vee had a strong series against the Centennials last year scoring twice, then didn’t find the back of the net again. To Polk’s credit, he is a better player.
It’s important for strong teams to rid themselves of weaker opponents quickly because it helps eliminate the question if they are serious Fred Page Cup contenders or not. It’s also important to avoid injuries if possible, which wasn’t the case for the Vees. Brendan O’Donnell only saw action in Game 1 of the series, while Mark MacMillan played seven periods and didn’t dress for Game 4 for precautionary reasons.
Any time a team struggles against a weaker opponent, you have to wonder how they will perform against the top dogs. It has been known for weak teams to play harder as to prove their worth against elite foes. A good example of that was the series between the SilverBacks and Centennials. Aside from the SilverBacks’ 7-2 blowout win in Game 1, the remaining three games were decided by a goal, with one decided in overtime. It was a test that SilverBacks coach Tim Kehler was glad his team faced. Merritt improved this season and has earned the respect of strong clubs.
I have doubt in the Vees after watching them tie Prince George 2-2 in their second-last game of the season. Vees coach-general manager Fred Harbinson felt differently as he liked how his team played and credited Spruce Kings goalie Kirk Thompson’s play against them. There is no doubt that goalies can steal a game, and even a series for teams — just ask the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, who lost to the Montreal Canadiens last year in the playoffs. However, their performance could have been better.
The talent is there for the Vees to be successful in the playoffs. They have the right captain in Derik Johnson, who needs to be more careful of not taking unnessary penalties. They have offensive weapons in Joey Benik, MacMillan, O’Donnell, Garrett Milan, Laleggia and the list goes on. They also have physical players in Logan Johnston, who is having a strong playoff thus far, Joey Holka, Milan who always plays bigger than his five-foot-eight, 155-pound frame. There is also Mark Hall, who thrives on taking the body, Johnson, Paul Bezzo and Kyle Beaulieu. There isn’t too much of a shortage of being able to play physical, it’s doing it consistently. The Vees are proud of the fact they are the biggest team in the league and they added to it with local product Carter Rigby (six-feet, 210 pounds), who enjoys throwing the body, and has passed Michael Betz (six-foot-two, 205 pounds) on the depth chart. If the Vees show the hunger to win the BCHL title they have talked about all season, yes, call them true contenders.
Emanuel Sequeira is the sports editor of the Penticton Western News.