Whether they were still full of Christmas turkey, or just a bit too full of themselves following a pair of impressive victories prior to the break, the Merritt Centennials displayed little appetite for winning hockey after their return from the holidays.
In their first game back, on New Year’s Eve, the Cents played arguably their worst 60 minutes of the season in falling 8-1 to the visiting Coquitlam Express.
Three nights later, at Royal LePage Place in West Kelowna, the Centennials didn’t perform a whole lot better as they were blanked 5-0 by the Warriors.
In between those two embarrassing losses, the Cents managed to squeeze out a 4-3 home-ice victory over the cellar-dwelling Trail Smoke Eaters, who are 1-8-0-1 in their last 10 games.
Things turned ugly early against the run-and-gun Express, as Merritt surrendered a shorthanded goal just 1:28 into the opening period. To add insult to injury, the Coquitlam scorer was former Centennial Brendan Lamont.
Merritt captain Sam Johnson managed to draw his team even four minutes later, but the Express would score three more times in the period — all the result of horrendous Cents’ miscues in their own end.
The bleeding didn’t stop there, as Coquitlam added another troika of goals in the second period, and one final one for good measure in the third to more than make up for an 8-5 home-ice loss to Merritt back on December 7.
Coquitlam’s top line of Lamont, Cory Mackin and Brent Supinski had a field day against the Cents, racking up eight points in total. Mackin and Supinski currently sit one and two in the BCHL scoring race with 65 and 54 points respectively, while the 20-year-old Lamont is 18th overall with 41 points all told.
Cents’ starting netminder Jonah Imoo and his replacement Anthony Pupplo surrendered four goals apiece, on a night when every Merritt player in the lineup needed to take a long look in a mirror when it came to playing with heart and intelligence.
“Just like in Coquit-lam, we got into a game of playing riverboat-type hockey against [the Express]. When you play that gambling style and it works, it’s wonderful. This time, we made some stupid mistakes in the first period, and it cost us dearly. They’re a team that takes advantage of your mistakes.”
Against the Smoke Eaters on Friday night, the Cents needed a late third-period goal from Michael Ederer to finally put away their opponents, who were forced to go with 17-year-old call-up goalie Brock Lefebvre between the pipes because of injuries to both their regular puck-stoppers.
Despite the closeness on the scoreboard and 35 shots credited to each team, Friday’s contest was a listless affair, with little sparkle and not a whole lot of intensity. After the New Year’s Eve debacle, the Cents appeared to be playing not to lose rather than playing to win.
In addition to Ederer, Merritt scorers against Trail were Diego Cuglietta in the first period, Colin Grannary in the second and Nick Fidanza in the third.
Cents’ defenceman Cole Arcuri, out of the lineup since late November, recorded a pair of assists in the win and was chosen the game’s second star behind Ederer.
Imoo, back in net, had a good game in picking up the win. Possibly his best save of the season came in the opening period, as he went left to right across the crease to steal a sure goal away from the Smokies and keep the score at 1-1.
“Despite being down for a good part of the game, we found a way to not let it get away from us. That’s a positive,” Pierce said.
As for Ederer’s game winner, the coach added, “There’s not many guys who can make the water bottle jump when they fire the puck low blocker-side.”
Poor defensive play and a lack of discipline did the Cents in against the Warriors on Saturday, as their cross-Connector rivals had a heyday on the powerplay. West Kelowna scored four times on five man-advantage opportunities to make Merritt pay dearly for their indiscretions.
Just like in the game against Coquitlam, Merritt surrendered the first goal versus West Kelowna at 1:28 of the first period, then fell behind 2-0 on the Warriors first powerplay of the night at 15:49 of the opening frame.
After a scoreless second stanza, in which the Cents outshot the Warriors 17-9 but couldn’t buy a goal, things fell apart in the final 20 minutes. Frustration boiled over, and as Merritt players paraded to the penalty box, West Kelowna proceeded to find the back of the net behind a besieged Pupplo three times with no reply.
Following Saturday’s shutout loss, Pierce told Q101’s play-by-play broadcaster David Ashbaugh that his team got sucked into taking stupid penalties in the third period and playing selfishly.
“There’s just no excuse for that,” he said.
Pierce promised that practices this week would be all about learning how to work.
“Somehow, the players seemed to have forgotten that over the holidays.”
True to his word, Monday’s practice went 45 minutes without a puck on the ice.
“It was old school,” Pierce said. “I don’t like to do that, but sometimes the players have to be reminded that they’re fortunate to be here, and not take things for granted.”
The Centennials have a great chance to rediscover their winning ways and rebuild some confidence this weekend as they travel to the Lower Mainland to take on the Surrey Eagles Friday night, then host the Smoke Eaters at home again on Saturday. The Eagles sit at the very bottom of the BCHL standings with just seven wins this season, although three of those victories have come in the team’s last 10 games.
Going into this weekend’s action, Merritt finds itself in fourth place in the Interior division, nestled between the Warriors in third and the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in fifth. Only the top four teams in each division make the BCHL playoffs, which begin the first week of March.
Injuries will be a factor as the Cents begin their regular-season stretch run as both Devin Oakes and James Neill could well be lost for a substantial period of time, and Matt Foley may have his season end early as he is scheduled for surgery on his wrist.
As the January 10 trade deadline fast approaches, Pierce did not deny that he has been making and fielding phone calls in an attempt to shore up his depleted ranks.
“We’re probably being more active than we have been in the past, but it’s never an easy thing to do. There’s a lot of teams trying to get better, and many of them have more assets than we do at this time.
“The market’s tough. There’s a lot of buyers.”