The Merritt Centennials’ winning streak reached four games on the weekend thanks to a couple of ‘gritty’ victories over Interior Division rivals.

Friday, despite being outshoot 29-16 through the first two periods (and 38-22 overall), the Cents remained patient, stuck to their game plan and skated to a solid 4-0 win over the visiting Vernon Vipers under new head coach Mark Ferner.

The next night, in West Kelowna, the Cents and Warriors racked up 128 minutes in penalties in a ‘nasty affair’ that saw Merritt prevail 2-1 over its cross-Connector rivals.

The win over the Warriors was the first for the Centennials in almost two years of regular-season play.

The four-point weekend came at a steep price, however, as the Cents lost the services of veteran starting netminder Jonah Imoo on Friday and impressive young rookie Braden Fuller on Saturday.

With just seconds to go in his fifth period of shutout hockey, Imoo stretched to make a right-pad save against the Vipers, came up limping and had to be replaced by backup Anthony Pupplo. The diagnosis on Monday was a pulled hamstring requiring at least two weeks rest.

Fuller’s injury against the Warriors was considerably more serious. The Grande Prairie, Alberta native broke his wrist during some heavy going and will be lost to the team for a minimum of six to eight weeks.

Centennials rookie Braden Fuller scored Merritt’s first goal on Friday, but broke his wrist on Saturday in West Kelowna. Ian Webster/Herald

Centennials rookie Braden Fuller scored Merritt’s first goal on Friday, but broke his wrist on Saturday in West Kelowna. Ian Webster/Herald

Imoo and Fuller join Diego Cuglietta on the Cents’ sidelines, the latter still nursing a lower body injury classified as day-to-day.

It was Fuller who first put Merritt on the board in Friday night’s game against the Vipers, finishing a nice three-way play with linemate Devin Oakes and red-hot Gavin Gould at the 5:50 mark of the opening period.

James Neil was the next beneficiary of a ‘Gould-en’ moment, taking a nice centering pass from the diminutive boy-wonder and beating former Centennials netminder Jarrod Schammerhorn at 11:46 of the middle stanza to make it 2-0. Defenceman Josh Teves also picked up an assist.

Gould was involved again on Merritt’s third goal, at 16:02 of the second period, finishing what Teves and John Schiavo started on a Centennials’ powerplay.

Schiavo would wrap things up with just 52 seconds remaining in regulation time and his team on the powerplay again. Teves and Michael Ederer were rewarded with assists.

Pupplo played solidly in stopping all 10 shots thrown at him and preserving his team’s second shutout in as many games.

Friday’s game saw Cents’ starting netminder Jonah Imoo leave late in the second period with a leg injury. Ian Webster/Herald

Friday’s game saw Cents’ starting netminder Jonah Imoo leave late in the second period with a leg injury. Ian Webster/Herald

“I thought Vernon competed hard, and we started a bit slow,” Cents head coach and GM Luke Pierce said. “It’s hard right now. Every team is new and different, and you don’t know much about them. In every game we’ve played, however, we’ve been better as the game goes along.”

Pupplo played lights out on Saturday against a West Kelowna team intent upon maintaining its mastery over Merritt in recent years.

The netminder from New York was tested early and often by the high-octane Warriors who boast four of the league’s top dozen scorers in forwards Jason Cotton, Jordan Masters, and Liam Blackburn along with defenceman Jonathan Desbiens.

The Warriors would end up outshooting the Cents 33-19 on the night.

“I like to get a lot of shots. it keeps me in the game,” Pupplo said when asked about the early onslaught of pucks. “There were a few quality chances but, for the most part, the defence kept everything to the outside.”

It was Desbiens who tallied the only goal of the first period — a power play marker that finally ended Merritt’s perfect start to the season on the penalty kill.

The highlight of the period from a Cents’ perspective had to be defenceman Jake Clifford’s devastating hip check on West Kelowna’s Kylar Hope that left the Warrior forward picking up the pieces on his long trip back to the bench.

The opening 20 minutes also saw Merritt’s Oakes get tossed for a dangerous check from behind that seemed to portend the nastiness that was to follow.

The Warriors continued to dominate possession and zone time as the second period got underway, but it was the Cents’ Rhett Willcox who scored on a nice individual effort to tie things at one apiece. The only assist went to Clifford.

The score remained even through much of the second period; however, the ill-will only escalated with lots of stick work, and numerous scrums after the whistle.

With just a few ticks remaining in the second stanza and Merritt playing a man down, Clifford made a spectacular solo rush down the left side, beat a Warriors defender cleanly, and finished five-hole on a surprised Andy Desautels in the West Kelowna net.

Clifford’s sublime shorthanded tally would stand up as the game winner as neither team could score in the final 20 minutes.

“Jake is a very big part of our game, whether it’s making big hits or carrying the puck,” Pierce said. “We’ve been working on trying to get him to pick his spots and not try to do everything all the time.”

Pupplo made 32 saves off 33 shots to earn the victory, while Desautels turned aside 17 of 19 pucks sent his way.

Pierce said that losing Imoo Friday was tough, but that Pupplo has filled the void admirably.

“Anthony’s demeanour is a lot like Jonah’s. Not much is going to rattle either one of them. Anthony was efficient on Saturday and did a good job of finding pucks. Our goalies have been a really bright spot early on, but I do think the rest of the team has done a very good job of helping out.”

Saturday’s game ended on an ugly note with numerous misconducts being assessed to players who refused to cease and desist. Look for fireworks the next time the two teams meet — Oct. 17 in Merritt.

The Cents saw action Wednesday night in Penticton, after this edition of the paper had gone to print.

The Vees lost 5-0 in Merritt on Sept. 27, their only loss going into Wednesday’s game.

This weekend, Merritt plays the Chiefs in Chilliwack Friday night, then hosts the Salmon Arm Silverbacks on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

The Cents will be calling on Pupplo to carry the load during Imoo’s convalesence.

“It’s always nice to be able to carry a team,” the netminder said. “I know I’m perfectly capable of doing so, and embrace the challenge every night.”

OVERTIME

The Cents went with only five defencemen all weekend as rookie Tyrell Buckley was down and out with the flu. He was expected to play on Wednesday.

Pupplo’s backup goalie on Saturday in West Kelowna was 18-year-old Kristian Stead, a Merritt minor hockey product who has been called up from 100 Mile House of the KIJHL.

Following the weekend action, Merritt’s tandem of Anthony Pupplo and Jonah Imoo were listed one and two respectively in the BCHL’s ranking of goaltenders. The team had allowed just eight goals in their first six games.

In this Monday’s CJHL’s ranking of the top-20 Junior A teams in the country, Merritt was listed 10th, up from 15th last week. The Vees were listed at 15th and the Chiefs 18th.

In attendance at the Merritt-West Kelowna game on the weekend was former Centennial Bennett Huber. The 20-year-old from Calgary, who was moved to Okotoks at the trade deadline last January, has been acquired by the Warriors. His younger brother, Carter, was at West Kelowna’s training camp in September and saw exhibition action against the Centennials in Merritt on Aug. 31.