Cents a perfect three-for-three
Just when you thought things couldn’t get much better for the Merritt Centennials.
The Cents ran their current winning streak to five games, and closed to within six points of first-place Penticton (with two games in hand), thanks to a trio of victories this past week over Interior Division rivals.
On Feb. 13, the Centennials overcame a sluggish start and a pair of one-goal deficits to defeat the Salmon Arm Silverbacks, 4-2.
It was the second road win in as many games for Merritt’s rookie netminder Russell Sanderson who blanked the Langley Rivermen 5-0 on Feb. 9 in Langley.
“Russell played really well,” Cents head coach and GM Luke Pierce said. “He gave us a chance to win a game in which the team as a whole didn’t play very well.”
Two nights later, it was red-hot Sebastien Paré who proved to be the difference maker, as his goal at the 3:28 mark of the first overtime period led the Centennials to a 4-3 victory over the visiting Vernon Vipers.
Paré’s third goal in as many games was textbook. With the teams playing four-on-four hockey, Merritt’s Dylan Chanter gained the Vipers’ blueline before dropping a pass to Diego Cuglietta. The Kamloops native put a clean shot on Vernon netminder Alex Smith. Paré crashed the crease and jammed the rebound home to end the game and bring his teammates pouring onto the ice.
“After we went up 3-1, I wasn’t very happy with the way we let [Vernon] back into the game,” Pierce said. “It was a great overtime winner by Sebastien. He pounced on the rebound and put it away.”
The Cents saved the best for last. Saturday night, in front of a boisterous crowd of almost 900, the Centennials got goals from a pair of rookies — Cuglietta and Sam Johnson — and another game winner from Paré in a thrilling 3-2 win over the Penticton Vees.
It was Merritt’s second victory over the defending RBC champions in a week, and their fourth in six meetings between the teams this season.
The Cents roared out of the gate in Saturday’s showdown between the top two teams in the Interior. They scored the game’s first two goals and held a wide edge in terms of hits, puck possession and shots on net.
Penalties almost proved to be Merritt’s undoing, however, as they took seven of the game’s nine minors. While the Vees scored only once with the man advantage, they used the powerplay opportunities to swing the momentum in their favour and dominate the final 30 minutes of regulation play.
Veteran netminder Tyler Steel came through in a big way for the Centennials, stopping 36 of 38 shots fired at him (including 15 in the third period) to pick up his second win in as many nights.
“Tyler looked really composed,” Pierce said. “He came through with some big saves when we needed them.”
The Cents’ next game was Wednesday night in Trail against the fifth-place Smoke Eaters. The final score of that contest was not available by press time.
Merritt travels to Penticton on Friday before hosting West Kelowna on Saturday.
Sebastien Paré hasn’t been the only Centennial lighting it up lately. Rookie Bennett Huber scored in both the Salmon Arm and Vernon games.
“[Bennett] brings a lot to the lineup each and every time he plays,” Pierce said. “He’s a very good, skilled player.”
The Cents-Vees game had many highlights and several quirky moments. Topping the list was the goal allowed by Penticton netminder Chad Katunar when he whiffed on a 100-foot clearing attempt by Merritt’s Sam Johnson while the Cents were playing shorthanded.
To his credit, Katunar rebounded from every goaltender’s nightmare and combined with the Cents’ Tyler Steel to put on a marvelous display of puck stopping at both ends of the ice.
The Centennials can’t get any respect when it comes to the Canadian Junior Hockey League’s weekly Top-20 rankings of Junior A teams across the country. After four Honourable Mentions so far this season (including last week), the Cents were left completely off this Monday’s list — despite their three-for-three week. Meanwhile the Vees (whom Merritt has beaten four of six times this season) sit in the number nine position in the rankings. Go figure!