Round two of the 2013-14 BCHL playoffs is now in the history books, and just three teams remain in the hunt for the Fred Page Cup.
The Interior Con-ference final went right down to the wire on the weekend, with the Vernon Vipers winning out, 4-3, over the Penticton Vees in dramatic fashion.
Tied at three games apiece, it went all the way to 2:06 of the first overtime period in game seven before Michael McNicholas scored the series winner for the victorious Vipers.
Playing in front of a largely-hostile, sold-out crowd of 3,142 at the South Okanagan Entertainment Centre in Penticton, the Vipers needed two unanswered goals in the third period from Colton Sparrow and Brett Mulcahy to send the winner-take-all contest into extra innings and set the table for McNicholas’s OT heroics.
Mulcahy also scored the Vipers’ opening goal in the first period, while the Vees got tallies from Ben Dalpe, Cody DePourcq and Steen Cooper to build a 3-1 lead going into the final 20 minutes of regulation play.
Austin Smith stopped 23 of 26 shots in the Vernon net for the game seven win. His counterpart, Olivier Mantha, stopped all but four of 27 pucks directed his way.
Both teams had the benefit of three powerplays, but only Sparrow’s marker came with the man advantage.
Home field advantage meant little in the back-and-forth series between the Vipers and Vees as the two teams combined to win five times on enemy soil.
The Penticton-Vernon showdown in the Interior Conference final was the result of first-round series wins over the Merritt Centennials and the West Kelowna Warriors respectively.
In the Coast Conference final, the upstart Coquitlam Express continued to play the role of spoiler, downing the number-one ranked Langley Rivermen four games to two in their best-of-seven second-round series.
Coquitlam’s first two wins came in Langley in games one and two, while their final two victories were earned on home ice in games four and six.
The third-ranked Express got to the conference final thanks to another upset of sorts, as they downed the second-ranked Prince George Spruce Kings in round one, also in six games.
Finally, in the Island Conference, the Victoria Cougars needed to win just once on the other team’s ice in knocking off the Powell River Kings in six games.
Until the final game — a 4-2 win for the Cougars in Powell River — each team had been dominant at home but unable to steal a victory on the road.
Two of the three winning teams in round two of the playoffs have a connection to the Merritt Centennials.
Playing for the Vernon Vipers is former Centennial Dylan Chanter. The 19-year-old native of Armstrong toiled on the Cents’ blueline for two seasons before leaving to try his hand south of the border in the North American Hockey League.
Chanter left the NAHL after Christmas, and Merritt traded his BCHL rights to the Vipers for 20-year-old defenceman Jason Bird.
In 19 regular-season games with Vernon, Chanter failed to register a point; however, the stay-at-home D’man has come up big in the post-season, scoring twice and adding two assists in 13 games.
The Cents’ ties to the Express are even deeper. Playing for Coquitlam are a pair of 19-year-old former Centennials — defenceman John Saunders and forward Brendan Lamont.
Saunders was released by Merritt at the beginning of the 2013-14 season. After a stop for coffee in the Alberta Junior Hockey League in the fall, the Calgarian was picked up by the Express.
After playing two seasons with the Cen-tennials, Lamont was traded to the Trail Smoke Eaters last summer for experienced defenceman Shane Poulsen.
Shortly before Christmas, Lamont was moved to the Penticton Vees. He played just 17 games for coach Fred Harbinson’s squad before being shifted once again — to the Express.
Like Chanter, Lamont has been productive in the post-season, scoring once and adding four assists in 12 playoff games for the Express.
The BCHL playoffs now move into uncharted territory. For the first time, the format for round three will see the remaining three teams play a round robin series of home-and-away games against each other, beginning March 28.
The top two teams following the six-game, round-robin series will then meet in the Fred Page Cup final — a best-of-seven game series starting April 11.
The winner of the Fred Page Cup will represent the BCHL in the Western Canada Cup, slated for April 26 to May 4 in Dauphin, Man.
In its second year of existence, the WCC brings together the champions of the BCHL, the AJHL, the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and the Manitoba Junior Hockey League in a five-team, 13-game tournament to decide the Western Canadian champion.
The WCC winning team and the runner-up team will represent Western Canada at the RBC Cup National Junior A Championship, scheduled for May 10 to 18 in Vernon. Other teams in attendance will be from central Canada, Eastern Canada and the host Vipers.
Should Vernon qualify for the Western Canada Cup and go on to place first or second at the WCC, their qualifying spot for the RBC Cup will be taken by the WCC’s third-place finisher.