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After an unusually long Christmas break of 10 days, the Merritt Centennials were back on the ice Wednesday, preparing for their first game of the New Year — at home on Friday versus the Penticton Vees.
With just two practice days prior to Friday’s match with the first-place Vees (who played two games last weekend), Centennials head coach and GM Luke Pierce slotted in a pair of ice times each day.
Wednesday, the team worked out at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday, practices were scheduled for 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Pierce said the game plan for Friday will be to “keep things simple and not get ahead of ourselves.” He went on to add, “It’s definitely going to be a challenge. It certainly helps that we’ll be playing at home.”
This weekend’s pair of home games — which includes the Trail Smoke Eaters on Saturday — begins the long Cents’ run to the playoffs that start the second week of March.
In all, Merritt will play 24 games (12 home, 12 away) in that nine-week stretch, including 17 against BCHL Interior Division rivals. The schedule also includes one more Vancouver Island trip that sees the Centennials play three games in less than two days.
Pierce sees his team’s divisional games as being absolutely crucial.
“This year, there’s a group of six teams that are all within striking distance. The team that we play the most (five times) is West Kelowna. The way the two teams are sitting right now, that becomes a very important series of games.”
The quintet of games between the Cents and Warriors includes a three-game back-to-back mini series at the end of February/beginning of March.
“That series is sure to be intense,” Pierce said, “and could ultimately decide home ice advantage for one team or the other.”
In addition to the Warrior five-pack, the Cents face off with the Vees and Vernon Vipers four more times each, and both the Smoke Eaters and Salmon Arm Silverbacks two more times.
The Merritt Centen-nials begin play in 2013 with a 19-11-1-1 record and 40 points after 32 games. The team is in second place in the Interior Division, four points ahead of the Warriors and nine points behind the Vees, with games in hand on both teams.
Merritt’s home record (11-4-0-1) is one of the best in the league, while it’s road record (8-7-1-0) continues to stay just above .500.
Up to the Christmas break, the Cents had generated 104 goals-for, as opposed to allowing just 84 goals-against, for a +20 rating (fourth best in the BCHL).
In their last 10 games leading up to this Friday, the Centennials went 7-3-0-0.
With the January 10 trade deadline fast approaching, Pierce said that he is not in any rush to make any changes.
“We’re confident with the group that we have. That said, we’re keeping our ears open, keeping an open mind, and trying not to dismiss anything.”
Asked if he would go after a proven goal-scorer or a veteran defenceman if one or both were available, Pierce merely chuckled and said, “Probably 95 per cent of the teams that you talked to right now would probably have those same two things on their wish list.
“The thing is that anybody who’s wanting to make deals is looking for young talent [in +return]. Young talent is something we value, and take a lot of pride in developing. It’s not something we’re eager to part with.”
Last season, on deadline day, Pierce made one strategic move. The Cents acquired 20-year-old forward Carter Shinkaruk from the Powell River Kings specifically for his playoff experience. To make room for Shinkaruk, Merritt dealt 19-year-old Dustin Lebrun to the Sherwood Park Crusaders of the Alberta Junior Hockey league for futures.
Both Pierce and assistant coach Joe Martin made use of the holiday break to do some scouting. Martin was in Calgary taking in the world-famous Mac’s Tournament while Pierce made the trip to Princeton on New Year’s Day to catch a game between the host Posse and the visiting Penticton Lakers.