With Lino Chimienti as the backbone of their defence, the Merritt Centennials are a confident group.
“He has given us a lot of stability back there,” said Centennials coach Luke Pierce, of his goalie who has become a team leader. “We have the ability to take some more chances and feel a little confident in our zone.”
Chimienti and the Centennials visit the Penticton Vees today at the South Okanagan Events Centre at 7 p.m. and the last time the teams met in Merritt on Nov. 13, Kyle Mountain scored the 3-2 goal 25 seconds into the third. Chimienti was named the third star after making 33 saves. Since joining the team, the Laval, Que. native is 5-7-0 with a 2.74 goals against average, a .905 save percentage and one shutout. He has strengthened the crease duties with Tyler Steel, who is 3-8-0.
“Our goaltending has been very strong,” said Pierce. “They have given us a chance to win every night and for the most part our penalty kill has been good and our power play has been effective as well.”
While the Centennials road record of 3-11-0-2 shows signs of struggle, Pierce was happy with the effort on their recent Island swing that saw them go 1-4-0 with a 3-0 win against the Nanaimo Clippers.
“I thought our effort level was really good,” he said. “We just have to find a way to bear down and capitalize on our chances.”
Part of the reason the Centennials struggle away from the Nicola Valley Arena is because they are young and inexperienced. Pierce said that they had good first periods on the road, they just weren’t able to establish leads.
“It’s important for us to try and score early and get confidence going,” said Pierce.
Among the key things Pierce wants to see his team do against the Vees is limit second and third chances. He also emphasized the importance of staying out of the penalty box because of how dangerous the Vees power play is. On South Okanagan Events Centre ice, the Vees have the second most potent power play behind Westside, scoring 19 times on 58 chances for a 32 per cent success rate. Fortunately for the Centennials, they play a physical game without having the whistle blown against them too often. Merritt has been shorthanded 120 times this season. Only Salmon Arm has taken fewer penalties at 117. While being shorthanded 120 times, the Centennials have allowed 24 power play goals, effectively killing penalties 80 per cent of the time.
“We have done a very good job of that this year,” said Pierce. “We’re not worried about getting undisciplined. Our guys do a good job of playing a smart game.”
Vees forward Mark MacMillan is aware of what they face in the Centennials.
“I think they are a really hard-working team,” said MacMillan, who earned first star honours in a 10-1 win over Prince George on Sunday after scoring a hattrick and adding two helpers. “They have been doing well as of late. I think we just have to get after them right away.”
MacMillan said the Vees need to get on the forecheck quick.
With the Vees on a three-game winning streak, MacMillan said the team’s confidence is moving in the right direction.
During their Sunday matinee against Prince George, things didn’t get off to a good start as Nic DeSousa got the Spruce Kings a lead 19 seconds in. With five minutes remaining in the first period, MacMillan scored the first of his three goals on a nice tic-tac-toe play. It all began with Michael Betz starting the rush into the Spruce Kings zone and giving the puck to MacMillan, who then fed Brendan O’Donnell on the far left side. With MacMillan and Betz heading to the net on the odd-man rush, O’Donnell waited until the last possible moment to give the Pentictonite the puck back.
“It was just getting my stick on the ice,” said MacMillan. “He made a perfect pass, just had to tap it in the net.”
Joey Holka scored the winner 35 seconds into the second period when he redirected Paul Bezzo’s shot from the point. A minute later and Garrett Milan’s sixth goal of the season made it 3-1. With the Vees up 5-1, things got ugly when Spruce Kings defenceman Trevor Esau checked Milan from behind resulting in Logan Johnston jumping in to defend his teammate. Johnston received five minutes for fighting, two minutes for instigating and a 10-minute misconduct, while Esau was tossed from the game and given a second game misconduct. Milan was OK as he got up shortly after the hit. However, Vees trainer Geoff Carter immediately rushed onto the ice to assist him.
It was after that play that the Vees blew the game open scoring four goals, including a hattrick by O’Donnell, to give the Vees an 8-1 lead.
“I think they were a little bit undisciplined at times,” said MacMillan. “I think any time you can capitalize on a team that’s taking penalties like that, it’s a good thing to do and we were able to take advantage of some power plays and keep the momentum rolling five-on-five.”
As for their hattrick performances, there was some joking around in the Vees dressing room.
“I was bugging O’Donnell a little bit because we both had the hattrick but I got the first star over him,” said MacMillan. “He got second star, so we laughed about that. I guess more of the jokes were how bad we beat Prince George all together.”
Prince George Spruce Kings goalie Alex Wright reaches for the rebound on this scoring attempt by Penticton Vees Brendan O’Donnell in the second period of Sunday’s BC Hockey League game at the South Okanagan Events Centre. O’Donnell scored three times as the Vees pounded the Kings 10-1.