Harper leads Cents to Island sweep
British Columbia Hockey League Player of the Week Silvan Harper scored four goals and added a pair of assists to help his Merritt Centennials team go a perfect 3-0 on their weekend trip to Vancouver Island.
The fourth-year Cents player tallied twice in Merritt’s thrilling 5-4 double-overtime victory over the Victoria Grizzlies on Friday night, then scored once in each outing as his team defeated the Cowichan Valley Capitals 5-3 on Saturday and the Nanaimo Clippers 5-2 Sunday afternoon.
“I’m really happy for Silvan,” Cents head coach and GM Luke Pierce said. “He doesn’t get enough credit for what he does. He’s getting goals because he’s going to the hard areas of the game and he’s shooting more. His was a pretty special weekend.”
The 20-year-old Harper attributes much of his recent success (eight goals and assists assists in his last 10 games) to his familiarity with the league and his increased confidence.
“I’m feeling really good and comfortable, and I’m trying to enjoy my final year in Junior A as much as possible, because who knows what the future may hold,” Harper said. “I set some definite goals for this year, and getting 35 points was one of them. I’ve got 27, so I’m close.”
Harper added that playing with good linemates and having the faith and respect of the team’s coaches also means a lot to him.
The Island sweep by the Centennials was the first by a Merritt team since 1992-1993, and their overall 4-1 record following two trips across the Georgia Strait this season represents the first winning record by the club since 2003-04 when the Cents went 3-2 in their five games.
In the eight BCHL seasons between those winning records, the Merritt Centennials enjoyed little success on the Island, going a miserable 6-29 in 35 games.
The less than stellar set of past performances included three successive seasons where the Cents didn’t win a game (2008-11), one season where they lost three times in overtime (2004-05), another season where they were outscored 32-12 (2009-10), and a very forgettable game on Jan. 25, 2008, in which they were drubbed 14-1 by the Clippers.
With Cents captain Brent Fletcher serving the first game of his two-game suspension and Scott Patterson left at home in Merritt due to the flu, the Centennials went to their depth chart to get the job done against Victoria on Friday.
Merritt got the start it wanted against the Grizzlies, outshooting them 13-4 in the opening 20 minutes and scoring the period’s only two goals.
“It might have been the best period of hockey we’ve played [this season] home or away,” Pierce said. “It was astonishing.”
In addition to the two goals by Harper, the Centennials got a pair from their energizer bunny, Brendan Lamont, and the game winner from Regan Soquila — the result of a beautiful pass from AP call-up Danton Heinen — while the teams were playing three-on-three.
“I don’t think that the game should ever have gone into overtime,” Pierce said. “We had control of most of the play in regulation but it didn’t show on the scoreboard. It took a big-time play by Regan to put the game away.”
As for playing the affiliate Heinen during circus time, Pierce said, “I think that Danton is exceptional. He’s got an extremely high skill level and intelligence level out there on the ice. I looked at my roster [going into the three-on-three] and his name just kept jumping out at me.”
Tyler Steel picked up his 21st win of the season in the Merritt net. The Centennials outshot the Island-Division-leading Grizzlies 32-23. Each team went 1-for-5 on the powerplay.
Steel had the night off on Saturday versus the last-place Capitals as call-up goaltender Jessie Gordichuk got his first-ever BCHL start for the Centennials. The Penticton native performed admirably, stopping 26 of 29 shots for the victory.
At the other end of the ice, the Cents unleashed 45 shots on Caps starter Connor Lacouvee and were rewarded with five goals. Soquila continued his recent scoring rampage with powerplay and empty net markers, while Harper, Derek Huisman and rookie Bennett Huber contributed singles.
Heinen picked up his second assist in as many games on the Bennett tally.
“[Jessie] gave us a great performance in net,” Pierce said. “We just asked him to give us a chance to win the game and he did. He made an absolutely clutch play on a [penalty] kill late in the third period.”
Sunday afternoon, in Merritt’s third game in just over 32 hours, well-rested team captain Brent Fletcher wasted little time making his presence felt upon returning from his suspension. He was a force throughout the game against the Clippers and even chipped in on the scoreboard.
After Harper’s fourth goal of the weekend staked the Cents to an early 1-0 lead, there was no more scoring by either team until the third period. That’s when Huisman, Fletcher, Soquila and Sebastien Pare buried the biscuit while Nanaimo could only respond with two goals of their own.
After a night off, Steel looked fresh in picking up his second win of the weekend. Nanaimo outshot Merritt 37-32, including 18-6 in the third period when the Cents’ Charlie Donlin was assessed the games only penalty — a four-minute double minor for highsticking.
Pierce said the game plan against Nanaimo was to slow things down and keep it simple.
“We knew that [the Clippers] would come out with a lot of intensity after their loss to Trail on Friday. We wanted to get a lot of whistles, rag a lot of pucks in their end, and just take the pace out of the game. We’re not a team that ‘lulls’ very well, but I think we did a good job.”
Up next for the Centennials, and their only game this weekend, is a rematch with Nanaimo on home ice.
Regan Soquila’s four goals and three assists on the weekend raised his points total for the season to 50 (21 goals, 29 assists), and moved him into a seventh-place tie with Penticton’s Wade Murphy in the individual scoring race. At the top of the leaderboard is Langley’s Mario Puskarich with 30 goals and 31 assists for 61 points.
In addition to the loss of Fletcher for the first two games of the Island swing, and the absence of Patterson for the whole weekend, the Centennials also lost Richard Sabour-in for games two and three. The veteran defenceman sustained a shoulder injury against Victoria. He was capably replaced by rookie John Saunders on Saturday and Sunday.
Affiliate player Heinen covered for Fletcher in Victoria and Duncan (Cowichan Valley) and picked up an assist in each game.
A native of Langley, Heinen played two seasons for the Valley West Hawks of the British Columbia Major Midget League before joining the Richmond Sockeyes of the Pacific International Junior Hockey League at the beginning of this season. In 37 games with the Sockeyes, Heinen has scored 18 goals and added 23 assists for 41 points.
Also along for the Island trip as the backup goaltender was Jessie Gordichuk, who picked up his first BCHL win on Saturday versus Cowichan Valley. A two-year member of his hometown Penticton Lakers of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League, Gordichuk began this season playing for the Ontario, Calif. Avalanche of the Western States Hockey League before returning to British Columbia after Christmas and joining the KIJHL’s Osoyoos Coyotes.
Necessity demanded some creative line juggling over the weekend. By Sunday, the forward combinations had Huisman centering Sean Maktaak and Jeff Wight, Soquila in between Harper and Sebastien Pare, Fletcher with Huber and Deigo Cuglietta, and Sam Johnson between Lamont and Payton Schaefer.