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Cents tripped up by Vees in playoff series opener
A two-goal performance by defenseman Gabe Bast was all the Penticton Vees really needed as they skated to a 4-1 victory over the visiting Merritt Centennials in game one of their best-of-seven, second-round Interior semi-final playoff series, played Friday night at the South Okanagan Events Centre in Penticton.
It was the Vees’ first post-season action after finishing first in the BCHL’s Interior division regular-season standings and subsequently earning a bye in the first round of the playoffs. The Cents were coming off an inspirational 4-0 series sweep of the defending RBC national-champion West Kelowna Warriors in opening-round play.
Blueliners figured prominently in Friday’s game as towering defender Griffin Mendel also scored for the Vees, while Merritt’s lone goal came off the stick of third-year veteran defenceman and Penticton-native Tyrell Buckley.
For all intents-and purposes, this game was decided early, as the Vees opened the scoring just 1:24 into the game – Bast sending a seeing-eye shot through heavy traffic past a completely screened Jake Berger in the Cents’ net. The Vees then doubled their lead with just over two minutes remaining in the first period – Mendel sending a howitzer over Berger’s shoulder and bar down.
Penticton dominated every aspect of the first period, as Merritt players looked sluggish, out of synch and clearly rattled by the early goals against. The shot totals were 15-7 in the Vees’ favour.
Despite being outshot 15-11 in the second stanza, the Centennials managed to hold the fort and keep the period scoreless. Both teams had some great chances, but Berger and Penticton goalie Mathew Robson were equal to the challenge.
It was Bast again, early in the third period, who essentially sealed the Vees’ win – his point shot hitting Merritt’s Mike Faulkner and deflecting in.
Buckley’s tally got the Centennials on the board at the midpoint of the period, and seemed to generate some life in a Merritt team that had been playing way below its potential up until that point. Michael Regush was stopped by Robson on a breakaway that could have reduced it to a one-goal game.
Unfortunately, against the flow of play, Penticton captain Nicholas Jones was sprung on a breakaway of his own, and he made no mistake – going left to right, opening up Berger’s five-hole and deftly depositing the puck in the back of the net.
Penticton fired 40 shots on Berger, who had absolutely no chance on three of the four tallies. Robson faced 27 shots at the other end. Neither team was able to a score on five man-advantage opportunities apiece – a telling statistic. Merritt’s once-impressive powerplay has been rendered relatively ineffective over the last two months, and could ultimately be a deciding factor in the post-season.
It was quite a fractious meeting between Penticton and Merritt. The Cents were intent upon trying to rattle Robson, who concedes very little when he’s on his game. The 20-year-old netminder, who’s headed to the University of Minnesota in the fall, recorded 35 wins in the regular season, including four against Merritt.
The presence of Bast in the Vees’ line-up was a rare treat for Penticton. The third-year BCHL player dressed for only 22 regular-season games over the last two seasons due to a plethora of injuries, and was actually sent down to the Junior B Surrey Knights in January of this year. He is currently back with the Vees as an affiliate player – one with a huge upside. When he’s healthy, the Red Deer native is a game-changer, as evidenced on Friday night. Next season, Bast will be playing for the University of North Dakota – the same institution that former Vees’ defenseman and current Vancouver Canuck Troy Stetcher attended.
Going into Saturday’s game two in Penticton, the Centennials will have to be a good deal better if they hope to steal one in the Lakeside City. They’ll have to be faster-of-foot, more energized, and less individualistic. One player is not going to get a win; only a complete team effort will bring about that result.
Not playing for the Centennials in the playoff series opener was forward Zach Court, who is injured, and defenseman Ethan King. Currently practising with the team is AP forward Ian Creamore. The 20-year-old from Vancouver played this past season with the North Vancouver Wolfpack of the PIJHL, where he scored 18 goals and added 31 assists for 49 points in just 42 games.