Cents’ 2-1 double overtime loss to nationally top-ranked Vees just about as good as it gets
It is the humble opinion of this lowly hockey scribe that last Saturday’s BCHL game between the Merritt Centennials and the Penticton Vees at the Nicola Valley Memorial Arena ranks as one of the best, if not the best, Junior A hockey games ever played in this grand old barn.
The fact that the Centennials lost 2-1 in double overtime to the nation’s top-ranked team can take nothing away from the scintillating performance put on by both sides. The game had everything – magnificent goaltending, rock-solid defensive play, and breathtaking, end-to-end offensive rushes. It was, quite simply, a game for the ages. A game played the way hockey should be played.
That there was a winner and a loser on Saturday night seemed almost an injustice to the over 870 fans in attendance, and the many more watching and listening via video and audio broadcasts.
With just 45 seconds left in the second and final five-minute period of overtime, it was Penticton’s Travis St. Denis who netted the game winner, taking a pass out in front from teammate Mario Lucia and burying the biscuit behind Merritt netminder Tyler Steel. The goal not only won the game for the Vees but extended their record-setting winning streak to an unbelievable 38 games in a row.
It all came down to five minutes of frenetic three-on-three play because each team could score but once through 60 minutes of regulation and five additional minutes of four-on-four action. The Cents’ Sean Maktaak put Merritt on the scoreboard first with a powerplay marker at 18:25 of the first period. The Vees answered with a man-advantage tally of their own with 4:17 remaining in the second stanza. Neither side could score in the third period, as Steel and the Vees’ Michael Garteig stood on their heads to maintain the tie and take the game into extra innings.
Surprisingly, Satur-day’s heart-breaking final outcome left Cents’ head coach and GM with mixed emotions. On the one hand, he was bitterly disappointed with the loss, while at the same time he felt incredible pride in the performance of his players against the country’s number one Junior A team.
“Obviously, I would love to have seen us win,” stated the bench boss. “I felt so bad for the guys because they played so hard. I know how bad they wanted it. That said, from a coaching standpoint, we couldn’t have played that game much better. From Tyler right on out, everybody performed extremely well.”
Steel, who was brilliant in net Saturday night – stopping 44 of 46 shots – conceded that the heart-breaking loss is hard to shake, but that he and his teammates are already looking forward to this coming Thursday’s rematch with the Vees.
“I’m not sure that the disappointment ever really goes away,” said the second-year Centennials’ puckstopper from Kelowna. “At least not until we get some redemption. I think we’re all looking forward to Thursday night, and hopefully we can get a “W”. I think we all want to beat that team for many reasons – their record against us this year, the streak of course, and being so close Saturday night.”
According to Steel, revenge was definitely on the minds of Centennials’ players going into Saturday’s game.
“We all knew what happened the last time we played them (a 9-0 drubbing on home ice back on Jan. 25), and obviously it left a sour taste in our mouths. We wanted to prove to them that we could give them a run for their money – now and in the playoffs if we get a chance to face them.”
The fact that each team could only score once in 65 minutes of action on the weekend suited Pierce just fine.
“I’d much rather see games like that than a 7-5 game,” he said. “Might be less entertaining in terms of goal scoring, but I don’t think anyone could say that Saturday night’s game wasn’t entertaining.”
Those fans wanting to see scoring need only to have attended the Cents’ game Friday night as Merritt ran roughshod over the visiting Trail Smoke Eaters 7-2. The home side tallied the first six goals of the game (three in the first period, three in the second) before the Smokies could get one past a solid Lino Chimienti in the Centennials’ net.
For the fourth game in a row, the Cents got production from three of their four lines. Leading the way were Chad Brears and Silvan Harper with two goals apiece, while singles came off the sticks of Sean Maktaak, Reece Willcox and Jakob Reichert.
“I was really proud of the way the guys came out and started the game,” said Pierce. “That was so key for us. Statistically, we haven’t begun well against teams below us in the standings.”
The Cents were hoping for a repeat performance against the Smoke Eaters on Wednesday night of this week as they travelled to Trail for the two teams’ sixth meeting of the 2011-12 campaign, and second of four in the final three weeks of the regular season.
“We haven’t played well there this year (two losses),” said Pierce. “Hopefully the team can build on the things that they did well this past weekend.”
The score of last night’s game in Trail was not available by press time.
Both Pierce and Steel would love to see the Nicola Valley arena full for Thursday’s Cents-Vees rematch.
“Having such a big crowd on Saturday night really helped us,” stated the netminder. “Hopefully we can get something like that on Thursday and we can feed off their energy.”
Puck drop Thursday night is 7 p.m. Don’t miss a minute of the action.