Cents come down to earth at home
The high-flying Merritt Centennials — impressive winners of three road games in three days on Vancouver Island just a short while ago — came back down to earth with a thud this week.
Saturday, in the back half of a home-and-home series with the Nanaimo Clippers, the Centennials looked flat and disorganized in losing 5-3 to the second-best team in the BCHL’s Island Division.
Six days earlier, the Cents defeated the Clips convincingly, 5-2, on the last stop of their three-game Island swing.
The Centennials didn’t look a whole lot better on Tuesday night this week as they managed only a 2-2 tie with the visiting Vernon Vipers, the last-place team in the Interior Division, and 17 points behind the Cents in the standings.
The pair of uncharacteristically sub-par performances at the Nicola Valley Memorial Arena garnered the Cents just one point out of a possible four — leaving them 10 points behind the division-leading Penticton Vees (with two games in hand) and just four points ahead of the third place West Kelowna Warriors who have played the same number of games.
Things started out well enough against the Clippers on Saturday, as first-period goals by Derek Huisman and Kevin Lohan staked the Centennials to an early 2-0 lead. The wheels sort of fell off from there, however, as the Clips were allowed to score the next three goals, and five of the remaining six, to hand Merritt just its sixth loss on home ice this season.
Scott Patterson tallied the Cents’ only other goal in defeat, while Tyler Steel took the loss in net. Merritt outshot Nanaimo 39-32.
Against the Vipers on Tuesday, Merritt was the first to score again as Sam Johnson picked up his fourth goal (since joining the club at the end of November) on the powerplay at 17:10 of the opening period.
Despite being down a goal, it was the Vipers who carried the play through much of the first 20 minutes, outshooting the Cents 10-9.
Vernons’ domination continued in the second period, and the visitors were rewarded with two goals, less than five minutes apart, by newcomer Mason Blacklock and Brendan Persley.
Merritt managed to draw even on the scoreboard at 13:49 of the second when a Dane Birks point shot rebounded off Vernon netminder Austin Smith, struck the Cents’ Regan Soquila in front and deflected back behind the surprised Vipers goaltender.
Neither team was able to score in the third period, though Merritt’s Payton Schaefer had a golden opportunity as he was sent in alone on Smith with seconds left on the clock. His well-labelled shot just caught the left shoulder of Smith and sailed over the crossbar.
The Cents dominated the pair of five-minute overtime periods, outshooting the Vipers 7-2, but could not beat Smith who was named the games first star. The two sides had to settle for the tie and one point each.
The final shot count was 37-34 in Merritt’s favour. The Cents went 1-for-5 on the powerplay while the Snakes failed to score on the same number of man-advantage opportunities.
In addition to Smith as the first star of the game, Vernon’s Blacklock picked up second-star honours. The third star went to Merritt blueliner Charlie Donlin who played a strong game in his own end and also made several effective rushes with the puck.
The Cents’ first-period powerplay goal was just their third in 42 opportunities dating back to Dec. 22.
Merritt’s powerplay ranking has fallen from first place in September to fifth place overall out of sixteen teams.