Going into Wednesday night’s home game against the Vernon Vipers, the Merritt Centennials were just one point ahead of the West Kelowna Warriors in the battle for second place in the BCHL Interior, and home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. (The outcome of the Cents-Vipes contest was not available at press time.)

What makes the fight for second all the more meaningful is that it will be Merritt and West Kelowna against each other in round one of the post-season. That’s a given, and every little edge – like home ice for games one and two, and games five and seven if needed – is crucial.

The Centennials could have locked up second place, and made the final week of the regular season a whole lot easier for themselves, had they put away the Warriors in their home-and-home series on the weekend. Unfortunately, all the Cents could muster was a single point, courtesy of a hard-fought 3-3 tie on Friday night in West Kelowna.

In the back half of the two-game series on Saturday, the Cents laid an egg in their own barn, falling to the Tribe 6-2. It was Merritt’s most one-sided loss to West Kelowna this season.

Prior to Friday, all five games between the teams had been decided by a single goal (two in overtime) – with the Cents on the losing end each time.

“I think everybody’s a bit disappointed with the outcome,” Cents head coach and GM Luke Pierce said on Monday, “not just of the weekend, but of the entire series with those guys. That said, we’ve talked to our players about looking at our whole body of work this year, and not letting our games with West Kelowna change that outlook or mindset.”

Friday night’s tie in West Kelowna was an outstanding game. It was also one that Merritt should have won going away. The Cents outshot the Warriors 37-27 during regulation play and 8-4 in overtime. They had several great chances in the second and third periods, and a penalty shot while the sides were playing three-on-three.

“I thought that we were the better team all-around,” Pierce said, “and deserved to win.”

The Warriors got on the board first, with Matt Anholt scoring at 3:27 of the first period. The Cents’ Derek Huisman tied it up 32 seconds into the second stanza, and Jeff Wight gave Merritt its first lead a little over five minutes later. Warriors captain Max French squared the game at 2-2, just 12 seconds after Wight’s go-ahead goal.

In a furious third period that saw numerous end-to-end rushes by both teams, Merritt’s Regan Soquila and West Kelowna’s Ambrose Firkus traded goals to send the contest into extra innings.

In the first five minutes of overtime, the Centennials survived a roughing penalty assessed to netminder Tyler Steel.

In the second OT session, Soquila was awarded a penalty shot. Merritt’s leading scorer on the season went right to left and completely deked out Warriors netminder Tyler Briggs, only to lose his balance and fail to put the puck past the down-and-out goaltender.

Saturday, in front of over 800 fans, the Centennials inexplicably came out flat in the first period and quickly fell behind 2-0 before the game was 11 minutes old.

Merritt was handed two 5-on-3 opportunities but failed to score on either of them.

Coaches Luke Pierce and Joe Martin managed to wake their squad up briefly and Diego Cuglietta and Sean Maktaak had the score even at 2-2 by the time the opening 20 minutes were over.

It was all Warriors in the final two periods, as they scored three unanswered goals in the middle frame and added one more for good measure in the third to skate away with a four-goal victory.

“We just didn’t seem to have the emotion,” Pierce said. “It was almost like we were expecting things to go wrong, and as a result they did.”

In a fractious contest that saw a total of 122 penalty minutes handed out to the two teams and nine powerplay chances apiece, the Cents went just 1-for-9 with the man advantage while the Warriors were 3-for-9. Merritt outshot their opponents for the second night in a row, 38-30.

OVERTIME

Each weekend game saw two fights.

Friday, the Warriors’ Brett Zarazun earned the decision over Sean Maktaak in a first-period tilt between willing combatants. Halfway through the second, Merritt’s John Saunders was the winner in a facewashfest with West Kelowna’s Marcus Basara.

Just two minutes into Saturday’s game, Merritt’s Charlie Donlin dropped the gloves with Shaun Hochhausen and promptly TKO’d him with a pair of devastating rights. The Warrior tough guy did not play the rest of the game.

At 9:27 of the second period, Brendan Lamont answered the bell with West Kelowna’s Reid Simmonds after Lamont was guilty of a check from behind on the Warriors’ Zarazun.

The Cents took a rare day off from practice on Monday and just met as a team to discuss where their heads were.

“There’s not been a game this year where our guys haven’t had to totally put everything out there – both physically and mentally,” Pierce said. “We’ve had a ton of very tough hockey games. There’s been a lot of pressure on our group. It just came to the point where we felt the players needed a break.”

Going into the final week of the BCHL regular season, both the Centennials and the Warriors had three games left to play.

Following Wednes-day’s game against the Vipers, the Cents host Salmon Arm on Friday and travel to Vernon on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Warriors have a three-game weekend road trip to Vancouver Island that sees them play in Victoria, Cowichan Valley and Nanaimo on Friday, Saturday and Sunday respectively.