Heading into the final weekend of regular season action in the BCHL, the Merritt Centennials are holding on to a glimmer of hope that they could still finish on top of the Interior division.
The Penticton Vees and the Cents are deadlocked at 75 points apiece, but the Vees own the tiebreaker by virtue of having 35 wins to the Centennials’ 34. Because the Vees also had the better of the Cents in the season series between the two teams, the Cents will need to finish with 36 wins to clinch the division.
With two games remaining on the schedule for both teams, the Vees are still in control of their fate — should they win out in their final two games, they will clinch the division. However, should the Penticton squad drop one of those games, the door opens for some late-season dramatics from the Centennials.
With a multitude of scenarios in front of both teams, the final weekend of the BCHL’s regular season promises to be one of the more memorable in recent history for the Centennials, who have won three straight to claw their way back into a battle for the division title.
Here is how they got there.
Feb. 15 – Merritt Centennials 4 Penticton Vees 2
It had been almost two calendar years since the Merritt Centennials won a game at the South Okanagan Events Centre in Penticton.
It was March 23, 2017 and the Centennials were in a must-win situation to keep their playoff hopes alive, as they found themselves down three games to one in the best-of-seven second round series.
A month shy of two years later, the current Centennials found themselves in another pressure game in Penticton on Feb. 15. Many Cents faithful were on hand to see the boys break the curse against the Vees, as the team organized a fan bus to make the trip out to Penticton.
Had Penticton continued their dominance of the Centennials, the division would have been all but decided.
But a herculean performance from Cents’ netminder Austin Roden, who stopped 53 shots, gave the Merritt squad a chance to keep their division title dreams alive. The team in front of him pulled through with a 4-2 victory, courtesy of goals from Matthew Kopperud, Nick Granowicz, Daniel Tkac and Rylan Van Unen on a penalty shot.
Feb. 16 – Merritt Centennials 6 Trail Smoke Eaters 4
A raucous crowd was on hand at the Nicola Valley Memorial Arena to take in the Centennials’ second to last home game of the season, a preview of what could be a first round playoff match up between Merritt and Trail.
If this game was any indication, a playoff series between these two teams would be a spirited affair.
The Smoke Eaters opened the scoring 10 minutes into the first period, but the Centennials answered quickly with Brendan Schneider finding the back of the net at 13:36. Trail would regain the lead before the end of the period, but a late roughing penalty would put the Cents on the power play to start the second.
Nick Granowicz scored his first of the game on the power play to open the second, with Kopperud and Mathieu Gosselin picking up the assists. The back and forth continued five minutes later, as the Smoke Eaters answered with a power play goal of their own to take a 3-2 lead.
Just over halfway through the period, Kopperud would knot the game at 3-3, beating Trail’s Donovan Buskey from an awkward angle. Five minutes into the third, Payton Matsui gave the home team their first lead of the game when he deflected a point shot from Talon Zakall past Buskey.
But the lead wouldn’t last, as Trail managed to once again tie the game less than a minute later. The teams remained deadlocked until Granowicz scored his second power play goal of the game at 11:06, restoring the Centennials’ lead. Captain Nick Wicks added an empty net goal which caused the NVMA to erupt in celebration as the Cents closed out a hard fought 6-4 victory.
Feb. 19 – Merritt Centennials 4 West Kelowna Warriors 1
Tuesday night’s game against West Kelowna served as another potential playoff preview, as the Warriors sat one point ahead of Trail heading into the final games of the regular season.
Granowicz’ 32nd goal of the year got the Cents on the board less than a minute into the game, as the forward pounced on an advantageous rebound from off a Mathieu Gosselin shot. Gosselin would then add a goal of his own to bring the Centennials ahead 2-0, before West Kelowna clawed back with a power play goal to close out the period 2-1.
But that was all the offence the Warriors could muster, with Austin Roden shutting the door for the rest of the game, making 38 saves on the night.
The Centennials did their damage in the third period, pouring 19 shots on West Kelowna’s Connor Hopkins. The visitors were rewarded with goals from Cents’ leading scorer Brad Cocca, and Gosselin, who scored his second of the game on a power play with less than ten minutes to go in the game.
Defenceman Michael Van Unen picked up two assists, while Gosselin enjoyed a three point night as the Centennials earned their third straight win by a score of 4-1.