The Okanagan Divison is surely one of the toughest divisions in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League.
It boasts five teams who play hard and never take a night off. Sure, the standings may be a bit stretched at the moment, but it doesn’t matter who you play on any given night, they can beat you.
With roughly 15 games remaining in the KIJHL regular season, each of Osoyoos, Summerland, Kelowna, North Okanagan, and Princeton still have their own individual battle to fight. Let’s start at the bottom.
The Princeton Posse, once thought to not be in the playoff picture, are just three points back of the fourth-place North Okanagan Knights. The Knights have struggled as of late going 2-8 in their last 10, but are trying to keep their lead and fend off Princeton for that fourth and final playoff spot.
The Kelowna Chiefs are right in the middle in the third spot. They have an 11-point cushion on the fourth-place Knights, and trail the second place Summerland Steam by 10 points with Summerland holding one game in hand. Summerland, with that 10-point lead on Kelowna, sits in second in the division, five points back of the division leading Osoyoos Coyotes. If the season were to end today, Summerland would start the playoffs on home ice where they hold a 13-1-1-1 record.
Things could change drastically at the top of the Okanagan Divison in the coming weeks, as the three teams at the top play each other a lot down the stretch. Summerland will see Kelowna and Osoyoos each four times, while the Chiefs and Coyotes lock horns twice. I would venture to guess that if any change occurs, it will be between the top two for the division title.
Staring down the barrel of their fifth meeting of the season Friday at Summerland Arena at 7:30 p.m. the Steam and Kelowna Chiefs have played some entertaining hockey. Both have hosted the other twice, with the home team winning all four contests. All but one of the four thus far, a 4-1 Summerland win on Dec. 3, have been decided by just a goal. The last one in particular, a 5-4 win for the Chiefs in Rutland on Dec. 17, was especially entertaining from a fan standpoint.
Since Dec. 17, the Chiefs have returned to (mostly) full man-power. Brett Witala, the KIJHL leader in goals with 22, is back from injury while Brody Dale, Tyler Love, Ty Dornn, Tyson Taylor and Kolten Carpenter have all returned from suspension and/or injury. Elliott Pickrell is the only member of the Chiefs still serving a suspension, and will serve his fifth and final game on Friday night when the Chiefs visit Summerland Arena.
I would expect to see Tanner Marshall, the 16 -ear-old standout netminder for the Chiefs, in goal again. Marshall, a Kelowna native and selectee for the 2017 KIJHL Top Prospects Showcase on Jan. 14 in Kelowna, has been nothing short of stellar. Carrying the load for head coach Jason Tansem, Marshall has started 22 games and compiled 11 wins and a .910% save percentage.
It will be important for the Steam to create traffic in front of the net and make sure whomever stands in it, Tanner Marshall or Brandon Gaucher, can’t easily see.
The Steam have been doing this a little more of late, and it’s been a refreshing sight. For a lot of the early part of the season, Summerland spent time working the perimeter of the ice and creating offence from the outside. Recently, Steam forwards have done a great job going to the front of the net and creating offence from in tight off rebounds and sharp passes below the goal line.
The newly formed line of Josh Pilon, Steven Fiust, and rookie Morey Babakaiff have led the charge in this regard, and are being rewarded. Though Fiust hasn’t scored in 16 games, he drives this line with his puck skills and hockey smarts. He’s what hockey minds like to call ‘a heady player’ and creates offence for his linemates without much secondary effort. With 21 points (four goals, 17 assists) in his first 30 games with the Steam, Fiust has fit in well on a line with longtime friend Pilon. The two played together two seasons ago in Revelstoke, and have found that chemistry this season.
Playing most of the season with Everett Scherger on their left side, recently head coach John Depourcq moved Babakaiff to the left side of Pilon and Fiust, both balancing out his lines and rewarding Babakaiff for continued hard work and vast improvement.
Switching Scherger, a rabid pursuant of the puck, and Babakaiff allows more balance to Summerland’s lines. It allows Scherger to play with Ben Dietrich-Scammell and Braden Eliuk, helping that line in puck pursuit and creating more opportunity.
With a Summerland victory and a Princeton loss on Friday night, the Steam will clinch their fourth straight playoff appearance.
Submitted by the Trolley Talk blog.