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Cents come up empty in game two
It’s gut check-time for the Merritt Centennials.
For the second night in a row, the Cents fell 4-1 to the Penticton Vees, and again didn’t look good in the process. In front of over 2,800 fans at the South Okanagan Events Centre on Saturday, the home side simply had their way with the visitors from the Nicola Valley. The winner of the game never seemed in doubt – the question was only by how much.
The Vees now have a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven Interior division playoff series with the Cents, as the two teams prepare for games three and four at the Nicola Valley Memorial Arena in Merritt on Monday and Tuesday nights.
The Cents will simply have to bring a whole lot more to the table if they hope to see this series extend beyond the minimum four games. They are being beaten, if not schooled, in every facet of the frozen game – from the basics of skating, passing and shooting to puck possession, zone coverage, one-on-one puck battles, face-off wins, team play, even individual and collective effort and intensity. You name it, the Vees have owned it.
Saturday’s game two got off to the same horrid start as its Friday counterpart, with Penticton scoring the first goal of the game less than three minutes into the opening period. While Merritt netminder Jake Berger could not be faulted on the first night’s point shot through a screen, the same could not be said for the second go-round. It was a total whiff on a harmless puck on net from the face-off circle by the Vees’ Jamie Armstrong. It looked ugly.
To the Cents’ credit, they didn’t just fold up the tent and go home. They tried to make a game of it, but were simply stymied by a Vees’ team that was relentless with the pressure, and intent upon spending every minute of the night at the Merritt end of the ice. The shots total after 20 minutes, 11-8 in the Vees’ favour, did not accurately reflect the total Penticton domination of the first period, and the numerous quality scoring chances that Berger and company were forced to turn aside.
Part of Merritt’s offensive problems lies in the team’s inability to take the puck forward in numbers. Instead, it always seems to be a lone puck carrier chugging up ice, intent upon beating four to five opponents all by themselves to gain entry to the Vees’ zone. Penticton is very effective at gang-tackling (to use a football analogy) – they swarm the player with the puck and force them to do something uncomfortable.
The Cents have also been guilty of a one-and-done offensive strategy – blasting the puck at the Vees’ net from distance in an attempt to score. Unfortunately, too many of the shots are missing the target completely, careening off the boards or glass, and setting up an immediate transition opportunity for a fleet-footed Penticton forward group that knows how to execute on the odd-man rush.
Merritt managed to keep it a one-goal game until the midpoint of the second period when Duncan Campbell was left open to the side of the net, and deposited a backdoor pass to make it 2-0 for the Vees. That’s how the scoreboard read at the end of 40 minutes – the same as in Friday night’s game.
A large contingent of Merritt fans in attendance at the SOEC kept willing their team to a third-period comeback, but it was not to be. Cents’ forwards like Tyler Ward, Michael Regush, Zach Risteau and Cade Gleekel – all of whom have a scoring pedigree – were completely neutralized by the Vees’ relentless defence. The hosts had quicker feet, faster sticks and greater tenacity. They simply demonstrated they wanted the game more.
Taylor Ward made it 3-0 for Penticton with just under six minutes to go in the third period, again with an easy play at the side of the Merritt net.
With less than two minutes remaining in regulation, and Berger pulled for a sixth attacker, Merritt’s Stephan Seeger got the Cents’ only goal of the night on a wicked slap shot right off the face-off that beat Penticton goalie Mat Robson. Unfortunately Seeger’s goal was neutralized by Owen Silinger’s empty-netter with 53 seconds left on the clock.
The Centennials’ frustration at two straight three-goal losses boiled over in the final seconds of Saturday’s game as a couple of scrums after the whistle degenerated into a couple of gloved punches thrown and a whole lot of trash talking. Up until that point, there had been no penalties called throughout the entire game to either team, as the zebras allowed a lot of things to go – in marked contrast to Friday night’s tightly-called affair.
The final shots on goal were Penticton 36 and Merritt 21 for two-game totals of 76 and 48 respectively. The Vees’ eight goals in the series to date have come from seven different players. The Cents two tallies stand in marked contrast to the 21 goals the team generated in their four-game series with the West Kelowna Warriors.
There was one minor change in the Merritt line-up for Saturday. Ethan King replaced Michael Van Unen on defence. The gritty Zach Court remained out of commission due to injury, and his status for game three is unknown.
While Berger has been stoic, and at times sensational, through the first six games of the post-season, one has to wonder if Cents’ head coach and GM Joe Martin might turn to netminder Colton Lancaster for game three on Monday. The affable ‘Lannie’ has earned a playoff start, and perhaps his insertion into the line-up will spark a favourable response from the rest of the Cents’ squad.
The Centennials can only hope that the friendly confines of the diminutive Nicola Valley Memorial rink will help to confine and throttle back the Vees’ potent attack. More importantly, perhaps a barn full of ardent, noisy supporters will help a Merritt team rekindle its mojo and make this second-round playoff series as electric as the first.