Three goals in a five-minute span for the Merritt Centennials helped them secure a 4-3 win against the Penticton Vees.
Brent Fletcher’s second goal of the playoffs at 15:54 of the second period proved to be the winner to even the Interior Conference final at one. That goal silenced the crowd of 2,026 (minus the group from the Centennials fan bus).
“It’s huge. Just that first one was a confidence booster,” said Centennials assistant coach Joe Martin. “Their goalie is playing well. He has played well for a while now, to get shutout last night (Tuesday) but to not have any great opportunities. I think he only had to make a couple big saves for them. That first one catapulted the team there. For nine minutes it was looking good for us.”
However, Travis St. Denis gave the Vees some life as his second of the game and playoffs came eight seconds after.
Despite their best efforts, the Vees couldn’t get the equalizer.
“We just didn’t bring it for the full 60,” said Vees forward Bryce Gervais, whose Twitter handle is @gervechkin. “We had a bad hiccup there for about seven or eight minutes in the second period. We had a great third period but you can’t be doing that in the playoffs. The best thing about this game is it’s short memory.”
The Vees have full intention of forgetting about the dismal period, which the Centennials scored all their goals. Gervais said the Centennials kept it simple while outworking and outbattling them. It started on their power-play with captain Logan Johnston in the box for high sticking. The Centennials moved the puck around well as Regan Soquila fed a pass to Evan Stack, who made a cross-crease pass to Chad Brears beating Chad Katunar, who ended up out of position. Nineteen seconds later, Katunar wasn’t able to grab a loose puck that hit him and his defence was unable to clear it. Just like that it was 2-1 for the Centennials. Three minutes later, the Centennials made it 3-1 when Vees defenceman Troy Stecher was unable to cut off a pass by Soquila to Stack beating the outstretched Katunar.
In that time, the Vees also managed just one shot in eight minutes. The Vees had their chances to clear the puck but couldn’t.
“They weren’t in game at that point,” said Harbinson, who praised the job Katunar has done so far. “They got a goal Chad (who went 145 minutes without allowing a goal) would like back. We kind of fell asleep for a few minutes. Those two quick goals gave them energy. Our guys didn’t play hard enough in those five minutes.”
“We didn’t change a lot of stuff,” said Martin, adding they they will keep doing the same on Friday and Saturday. “I think the last game there was a lot of rust. We were sloppy. We didn’t execute very well.”
After St. Denis made it 4-2, he had another late chance in the second but was denied by Tyler Steel’s right pad. Steel finished with 29 saves on the night and was named the game’s first star. In the third period, the Vees outshot the Centennials 11-3. They weren’t able to cut the lead to one until 11:18 when Steven Fogarty scored on a sniper-like wrist shot that beat Steel high glove.
“In the third we were outstanding, had open net chances,” said Harbinson. “Steel played desperate. It’s disappointing. You play six periods and shut them out for five and the series is tied at one. Just can’t have a mental lapses.”
Centennials forward Sean Maktaak, who grew up watching the Panthers and Vees is enjoying playing against his hometown team. Never recruited by the Vees, Centennials coach Luke Pierce discovered Maktaak while playing junior B for the Creston Valley Thunder Cats three years ago while being coached by Martin.
“I wasn’t really an all-star player going out of midget,” said Maktaak. “It really helped me progress and take the stepping stone into junior A.”
As for the win on Wednesday, Maktaak said it was big, especially going back to Merritt.
“Our barn is going to be packed and it’s a great atmosphere to play in and we’re pretty confident right now,” he said.
Game 3 and 4 of the series shifts to Merritt on Friday and Saturday. Game 5 will return to Penticton on Monday.