Looking to come back bigger and better than ever, the Merritt Centennials hit the ice for their first pair of 2023/24 preseason games this weekend.

The team underwent some major changes in the offseason, including the replacement of former Head Coach Curtis Toneff with Brian Passmore, along with other sweeping changes behind the bench and on the roster. With just a handful of returning players, and new league rules allowing for more international players, the team looks to improve from their past five seasons, in all of which they missed out on the playoffs. 

Last season, the team won just 12 of their 54 regular season match ups. The team’s roster was heavily marred by injuries, especially later in the season, when the Cents lost multiple games in major blowouts. While the team’s first two BCHL exhibition (preseason) games ended in losses, the Cents put up a strong fight against the visiting Warriors. 

Game one – September 8, Nicola Valley Memorial Arena – at West Kelowna Warriors: 

The first exhibition game of the preseason saw the West Kelowna Warriors visit the Cents on home ice, with new acquisition Beau Lane starting in goal for the Cents, and Angelo Zol between the pipes for the Warriors. 

The first period began as a slow burn, with solid defensive play from the Centennials’ refreshed defensive line. Jackson Kyrkostas of the Warriors managed to break though for the game’s first goal at the 6:17 mark, capitalizing on a power play as a result of a charging call against Merritt’s Michael Stenberg. A few minutes later, Kyrkostas would double up his scoring for the night, making it 2-0 for West Kelowna. Before the period ended, despite being short handed from an interference call, the Cents would respond with a goal by Damon Jugnauth. Jugnauth, who spent most of last season recovering from an injury, made the score 2-1 before period close. Shots on goal for the Cents were at 14, with just eight for West Kelowna. 

The second period featured a strong showing by the Cents, who were eager to make themselves heard in front of the home crowd. While Jack Farrell of West Kelowna would make it 3-1 midway through the period, most of the action took place within its last minute. The Cents then swapped out Beau Lane for goalie Stefan Carney. Jace Koenigsmark, a Cent new acquisition from New Jersey, found the twine behind Zol at the 19:07 mark to make the score 3-2. Just 24 seconds later, the Cents would make the alarms sound again with Timothy Kim scoring another and evening things up. Unfortunately for the Cents, the tie wouldn’t last long, as Mikka Kelechian of the Warriors scored with just one second left on the clock to make the score 4-3 heading into the third period. The Cents defensive line held the Warriors to just seven shots on goal in the second, with the Cents office shooting on goal 18 times.

The first half of the third period saw multiple man advantages for the Cents, although they were unable to capitalize on any of the opportunities. Forward Noah Weir would cement his team’s lead with a goal for the Warriors at the 12:00 mark, making the score 5-3. Just minutes later, despite being shorthanded after a high-sticking penalty, Trent Wilson of the Warriors would score the game’s final goal, leading to a final score of 6-3 for the Warriors. West Kelowna outshot Merritt 10-6 in the final period. Beau Lane saved 6/9 shots, while Stefan Carney held in 13/16. 

Game two – September 9, Nicola Valley Memorial Arena – at West Kelowna Warriors:

Night two of hockey action at the NVMA saw the new Cents roster hit the ice for another matchup against the visiting West Kelowna Warriors. The Centennials started Andrew Ballantyne behind the crease, the 6’3″ Whitby, Ont. native’s first Cents appearance. The Warriors started Matthew DellaRusso, also in his first BCHL appearance. 

The Warriors came out swinging in the first period, outshooting the Centennials 11-8. West Kelowna opened up scoring at the 3:25 mark with a shot to the back of the net by Callum Hughes. Just 16 seconds later, Hughes bested Ballantyne once again to make the score 2-0 for the Warriors. Scoring for the period would end at the 16:04 mark, when, after some mostly defensive play, Simon Hogue would score for a 3-0 West Kelowna lead going into the second period. No penalties were handed out for either team during the game’s first period. 

It was the Centennials who would strike first to open the second period, with Merritt’s Jacob Smith scoring on DellaRusso to make the score a more manageable 3-1. The next score would come until much later in the period, with Jackson Kyrkostas of the Warrior scoring his third of the preseason to make the score 4-1. Defenseman Martins Kruklitis, a Cents import from Latvia, would respond by finding the back of the net with just six seconds left in the period, making the score 4-2. West Kelowna outshot Merritt 19-15 in the second period.

The third period in Saturday night’s game saw little scoring action, but plenty of penalties delt out. Trey Ausmus of the Warriors garnered a holding penalty to start the period, but the Cents were unable to capitalize on the ensuing power play. The Cents themselves were hit with four penalties throughout the period, including roughing, slashing and tripping, but the team’s defenses kept the Warriors from scoring during the man advantages. The period’s lone goal happened with just 60 seconds left on the clock, when Simon Hogue scored his second of the night for a final score of 5-2. The Cents were outshot 7-5 in the final period of the game. Cents goalie Andrew Ballantyne saved 32/37 in the loss.

Coming up

The Cents will continue their preseason at the end of this week, with one away game on Friday being followed by a home game on Saturday. Both matchups will begin at 7 p.m., and the Cents will face the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in Interior division showdowns for both games. Admission for preseason games is by donation.

For more information on the Merritt Centennials, including roster and game details, visit www.merrittcentennials.com.