Cents back on track; win streak at three
The Merritt Cen-tennials have rediscovered their scoring touch – just in the nick of time.
After enduring a six-game losing streak in which they netted just five goals in total, and falling out of second place in the standings for the first time in over two months, the Cents rebounded in convincing fashion this past week with three decisive wins, while scoring an astounding 19 goals in the process.
After a 7-1 thumping of the Vernon Vipers on Feb. 14, the Centennials followed up with a stunning 8-0 derailing of the Coquitlam Express last Friday night, and then capped things off with a hard-fought 4-2 home-ice victory over the Chilliwack Chiefs on Saturday.
The perfect three-for-three effort vaulted the Centennials back into second place in the BCHL Interior Conference standings, three points ahead of the Prince George Spruce Kings, and seven up on the Chiefs. Both teams have one game in hand on Merritt in the race for a place in the post-season.
“I don’t know if anyone has had as dominant a week as our team did,” said Cents head coach and GM Luke Pierce on Monday of this week. “For us to beat three teams like that, that are all in a dogfight for playoff positioning, is pretty impressive.”
One of the reasons for the Cents’ sudden resurgence was the return of their secondary scoring, a key factor in the team’s success for much of the season.
Of the 19 goals scored in Merritt’s three-game win streak, 11 came from players not on the Cents’ top line of Evan Stack, Chad Brears and Regan Soquila. That statistic contrasts sharply with the team’s previous 10 games in which the so-called ‘R-E-C’ line accounted for all but four of the team’s meagre16 goals.
Leading the way for the Cents’ supporting cast was 18-year-old rookie Brandon Bruce, with four goals and a pair of assists in his team’s three wins last week. The Kelowna native credited a renewed sense of urgency for his strong showing.
“After I got healthy-scratched in Westside (Feb. 4), I just kind of re-evaluated where I was at, and where I want to be. I really focused these last couple of games on ramping my play up.”
Pierce, for his part, was confident that Bruce would react in the right way after being taken out of the line-up.
“We sat him for a game, but it probably could have been any one of 13 guys that we did that to,” stated the coach. “We just knew, with the kind of player that he is, and the drive and determination that he has, that he would respond well and he did. He was incredible this past week. He got back to what makes him a good player – his speed and his tenacity.”
Bruce credited his linemates, Carter Shinkaruk and Sean Maktaak, for much of his recent success.
“I love playing with Carter. I think we both play a similar style. He’s easy to find out on the ice, and I think he finds me pretty well. Sean really brings a physical presence to our line. He also has a good set of hands and is smart with the puck.”
All told, Bruce’s third line trio combined for 13 points (6 goals and 7 assists) in the Centennials’ three victories. For his efforts, Bruce was selected the first star in the game against the Vipers, and the second star in the contest versus the Chiefs.
Meanwhile, Cents’ captain Evan Stack was the first star in both the Chiefs’ game and the blowout over the Express. The 20-year-old Calgarian racked up four goals and four assists in the three outings, impressive enough to also earn him BCHL Player of the Week honours.
“That was exciting,” said Stack, who learned late Monday of the league award. “It was nice to be recognized.”
The second-year Centennial, who cut his teeth with the Princeton Posse for one season, admitted that he and his teammates did not like the recent losing streak one bit, and were glad to get back on a winning track.
“It was getting pretty frustrating alright, but now we have our confidence back, and that belief that we can win every game. I think that’s so important going into the playoffs.”
Looking ahead, the Centennials are home for five of their seven remaining regular season games. This weekend, they entertain the cellar-dwelling Trail Smoke Eaters on Friday night before hosting the Penticton Vees, the top-ranked Junior A team in the country, on Saturday.
The puck drops Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 p.m.