A Cents’ season to remember comes to an end
In the end, all the heart and soul, all the passion and will to win in the world just wasn’t enough.
An emotionally and physically drained Merritt Centennials’ team fell behind early and could never quite recover in a 6-2 loss to the Penticton Vees on Monday night at the South Okanagan Events Centre.
The win gave the Vees a 4-1 victory over the Centennials in their best-of-seven Interior Conference championship series, and a date with the Powell River Kings in the BCHL Fred Page Cup finals. The Kings also ended their Coastal Conference series with the Surrey Eagles on Monday night with a 3-0 win in their game five.
In Penticton, the game was to all intents-and-purposes over early as the Vees scored twice in the first six minutes of the opening period, and led 4-1 after 20 minutes of play. Bryce Gervais, with a pair, Wade Murphy and Logan Johnston all found the back of the net in an impressive offensive display by the nation’s number-one-ranked Junior A team. Only Silvan Harper could reply for the Centennials in a period that saw Penticton outshoot the visitors 18-10.
“Getting scored on early was tough,” stated Cents’ head coach and GM Luke Pierce. “It takes a considerable amount of mental focus to defend against that team [the Vees] and, unfortunately, that just wanted as sharp as it needed to be.”
Pierce went on to give credit where it was due. “I really think that was the best the Vees have played all series,” he said. “They were doing things that we hadn’t seen them try much earlier. They caught us a little bit off, and when you’re off, they’ll burn you.”
The Cents went on to play a solid final two periods but could never really erase the early deficit. Gervais, with his second of the night, and Ryan Reilly added to the Vees’ lead in the middle frame, while Reece Willcox closed out his two-year BCHL career on a positive note with a goal in the final seconds of the game.
“For our guys to play as hard as they did in that final 40 minutes was pretty impressive,” said Pierce. “They had every reason [i.e. the scoreboard] to just pack it in, but they never quit.”
Penticton outshot Merritt 36-30 on the night, and managed one powerplay goal in five opportunities. The Cents continued to be snake-bit with the man advantage, going 0-for-8 in game five and just 1-20 for the series.
Pierce closed out the game, and his team’s magical season, with a couple of classy gestures from the bench in the late going. After pulling starting netminder Lino Chimienti following the Vees’ fifth goal in the second period, the Merritt head coach re-inserted the 20-year-old, graduating goaltender at the start of the third for the final 20 minutes of his Junior A career.
In addition, as the clock ticked down the last two minutes of the game, Pierce also placed his team’s other four 20-year-olds on the ice – captain Evan Stack, Chad Brears, Bill Marshall and Carter Shinkaruk – along with Willcox, who is scholarship-bound to Cornell next year. In a truly poignant moment, the graduating group were rewarded with a goal as Willcox’s point shot found its way through a maze of bodies and past Vees’ goalie Chad Katunar.
“I’ve always thought that’s the way it should be,” explained Pierce in reference to his late-game line-up on the ice. “During the time-out, I just told them to go out there and have fun and play. About that time, the nah-nah-nah-nah chant was being sung [by the Vees’ fans], and I remember thinking that I’d love nothing better than to see our guys score and shut them up. When they did, we had as loud a cheer from our bench as at any point in the series. It was something special. Those are the little things you remember.”
Pierce went on to add that this year’s entire Cents’ team has done the community of Merritt proud, and that he felt honored to have coached each and everyone of the players who battled right to the final buzzer.
“At the end of the day, this is one of the best Centennials’ teams in the franchise’s almost 40-year history,” he said. “I told the players that they had brought not only a team but an entire organization out of obscurity and made them relevant again.”
Pierce said that having over 1,000 fans at the Nicola Valley arena for games two and three of their second round playoff series with Penticton was “intoxicating. The atmosphere was unbelievable!” The coach went on to add, “Not only does support like that inspire the players but, with this level of hockey being so financially-driven, it’s an absolute necessity.”