Cents’ winning streak continues
The Merritt Centennials picked up right where they left off before Christmas, winning their first two games of the new year.
Friday night, the Cents got two late goals from Regan Soquila in a thrilling 4-2 decision over the visiting Penticton Vees. It was the first Merritt victory on home ice against a Penticton team since Sept. 29, 2009.
Twenty-four hours later, the Centennials scored three unanswered goals in the third period en route to a 6-3 blanketing of the Trail Smoke Eaters.
The two weekend victories raise the Centennials’ current winning streak to four games — the longest in the BCHL. Merritt’s record of eight wins and just two losses in their last 10 games is also a league best.
Against the Vees on Saturday, the Centennials hardly looked like a team that hadn’t played a game in 12 days as they came out of the gate hard and took the play to their arch-rivals. Derek Huisman, with a beautiful solo effort, put Merritt up 1-0 just 1:04 into the first period.
“Our objective going into the game was to keep things simple,” Cents’ head coach and GM Luke Pierce said. “To get a lead like that gave us a lot of confidence.”
It stayed a one-goal game until the 11:08 mark of the second period when newly-acquired Sam Johnson scored his second goal as a Centennial.
“[Johnson’s] been very good at both ends of the ice,” Pierce said. “I thought his line at times was the best one on the ice.”
The Vees finally got on the board with 1:40 left in the middle frame, as a seemingly harmless centering pass by Troy Stecher deflected off Brock Balson and knuckle-balled its way through the five-hole of Merritt goaltender Tyler Steel.
Despite carrying the play, Merritt surrendered the equalizer to Penticton at 3:39 of the third period. Brad McClure took advantage of an odd-man rush to blast a beautiful shot high glove-side past Steel.
“That’s what [the Vees] build their whole game on — turnovers and quick transitions,” Pierce said. “They try to really make you pay for your mistakes.”
The score remained deadlocked at 2-2 until there was just 1:19 remaining in regulation time. That’s when ‘Clutch’ Soquila fired a quick shot from the bottom of the left face-off circle that handcuffed the Vees’ Nic Renyard and found the back of the net for the go-ahead goal.
The second-year Centennial from Maple Ridge then added insult to injury, scoring an empty-netter from almost the exact same spot to seal the Cents’ win — their first over a visiting Vees’ squad in over four years.
Steel was particularly sharp in stopping all but two of 27 Vees’ shots sent his way. Meanwhile, the Cents peppered 39 shots at young Renyard in the Penticton net.
Saturday’s tilt between the Cents and Smokies was very evenly — and rather loosely — played through the first two periods, with each team scoring three times. Johnson and Huisman (with their second each of the weekend) and Jeff Wright tallied for Merritt, while Scott Davidson, Tyler Berkholtz and Luke Sandler replied for Trail.
A tenacious Cents’ forecheck finally got the better of the Smoke Eaters in the third period. Richard Sabourin’s go-ahead goal from the point at the 9:00 mark was followed shortly thereafter by Sebastien Pare’s wicked shot from 15 feet out and then Huisman’s third of the weekend with less than three minutes remaining in regulation time.
“We said between periods that we have to go out and earn a win,” Pierce said. “I thought the third period was the best period of hockey we played all weekend.”
Steel stopped 20 of 23 shots at the Merritt end of the ice, while a much-busier Lyndon Stanwood turned aside 24 of 30 shots for Trail.
Next up for the Centennials is a Friday night road contest against the Coquitlam Express who are currently languishing in last place in the BCHL’s Mainland Division.
Friday night’s game saw Regan Soquila drop the gloves for just the second time in his BCHL career. The younger brother of former Centennials’ captain Jordan Soquila took exception to Wade Murphy’s hard hit from behind on Sabourin in the second period and engaged the Vees’ forward in a lively scrap.
Soquila and Murphy were once teammates on a spring league team in peewee. The third member of their forward unit was none other than Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, last year’s number one NHL draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers, and a recent star at the World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia.
Another victim of a questionable hit was Merritt’s Scotty Patterson. Late in Saturday’s game, with the outcome already decided, Trail’s Luke Sandler stuck a knee out on the talented Cents’ rookie, who went down hard and had to be helped off the ice at the conclusion of the game. Fortunately, Patterson reported on Monday that his leg was a bit stiff but otherwise good to go.
Cents’ coach Pierce gave both Murphy and Sandler the benefit of the doubt with respect to their dubious hits, saying that neither player is known for dirty play and that both incidents happened in the heat of the moment.
Cents rookie defenceman Kevin Lohan was acknowledged at Friday’s game as the Mark’s Work Wearhouse Player of the Month for December. The native of Cold Spring Harbour, N. Y., has three goals and eight assists so far in his first BCHL season.
“[Kevin’s] just been steadily improving every night,” Pierce said. “He sort of symbolizes our [team] motto which is to get better every game. He’s gone from being a pleasant surprise at training camp to playing every night against the other team’s best line.”