Impressive wins over Penticton and Wenatchee not enough to secure Merritt a place in the post-season
The Merritt Centen-nials gave it their all on the final weekend of the 2015-16 regular season, but in the end it just wasn’t enough to get them into the BCHL playoffs for a seventh consecutive year.
A pair of improbable home-ice wins over the powerhouse Penticton Vees and Wenatchee Wild on Friday and Saturday respectively earned the Centennials four valuable points and a share of the fourth-and-final playoff spot in the Interior division with the Vernon Vipers.
Unfortunately, the tie-breaking formula did not work in favour of the Cents. With both teams sporting 51 points in total, it came down to the total number of wins for each team. Vernon had 24, Merritt 23.
The race to the finish line on the weekend could not have been more exciting.
Friday night, in front of a boisterous hometown crowd of close to 700, the Centennials spotted the visiting Vees a three-goal lead before scoring five unanswered goals of their own in a span of 11 minutes and 10 seconds of the final frame en route to a stunning 5-3 upset of the top Junior A team in the nation.
After Penticton went ahead 3-0 early in the third period, Nick Jermain kick-started the improbable Merritt comeback with his 28th goal of the season at the 6:21 mark. Just under three minutes later, defenceman Nick Fiorentino made it a one-goal game with another of his patented shots from the blueline that beat Anthony Brodeur in the Vees’ net.
Forty-one seconds after that, the ‘Nick hat-trick’ was completed when Nick Fidanza beat Brodeur to tie the game.
By now, the crowd at the Fridge was going nuts as they sensed history in the making. The juggernaut Vees at long last looked rattled and more than a little bit vulnerable.
At 11:40 of the third, rookie defenceman Mark O’Shaughnessy scored the eventual game-winner for Merritt. Less than six-minutes later, trade-deadline acquisition Ryan Roseboom added an insurance marker as bedlam reigned in the stands and the dreams of a place in the playoffs lived on.
The Cents’ Cole Kehler was outstanding in net, stopping 33 of 36 well-aimed shots by a Vees’ team that doesn’t like to lose and had a fully-loaded line-up that included BCHL scoring champion Scott Conway and projected NHL first-round draft picks Tyson Jost and Dante Fabbro.
Twenty-four hours later, again on home ice, an inspired Cents’ squad fired 47 shots at Wenatchee netminder Garrett Nieto in a 4-3 win against the Wild, who were making their first stop at the Nicola Valley Memorial Arena since joining the BCHL in September of last year.
The Centennials pulled out the win despite learning at the end of the second period that the Vipers were hammering the Smoke Eaters to the tune of 7-2 in Trail, and as a result Merritt would not be making the post-season.
Fiorentino, one of two Merritt players who definitely will not be returning to the club next year (as he begins a scholarship to Northeastern University in September) opened the scoring against the speedy Wild at 14:55 of the first period.
The one-goal lead would stand up until 5:47 of the second stanza when ex-Centennial Daniel Nachbaur finished off a pretty inside-out move on the Merritt defence with the Wild’s first goal and his fourth of the season.
Shortly thereafter, the two teams traded goals just a minute apart with Zach Court burying his 13th of the year for the Centennials.
Workhorse forward Brett Jewell, playing with a fractured right wrist, put Merritt ahead for a third time with his lucky 13th of the season at 14:33 of the second and that’s how it stayed until the final period of regulation.
Despite being badly outshot in the game and having no chance of catching the Chilliwack Chiefs for first place in the Mainland Division, the Wild refused to roll over and quit. Mike Coyne made it a 3-3 game just 30 seconds into the third period, and that’s the way it stayed for the better part of the period.
It was left to Jermain — the Centennials’ Mr. Clutch down the stretch this season — to come through again. The Connecticut Yankee scored his team-leading 29th of the year and the eventual game-winner with less than four minutes remaining in the third period for Merritt’s sixth win in its last 10 games and third in a row on home ice.
It was bittersweet as the final seconds of Saturday’s game counted down on the clock — knowing that the Centennials had finished things off with such a flourish, and that the team held so much promise for the future (with potentially 19 returnees in September), but that there would be no playoff excitement this year and the 2015-16 BCHL season was over.
More Cents’ coverage to come: read all about the Centennials’ awards night in next Tuesday’s Merritt Herald, and this scribe’s Five Reasons for the Cents’ Season in the Thursday edition.