Hang on to your hats, Cents’ fans! It’s gonna be one heck of a Junior A season in the British Columbia Hockey League’s Interior Division.

The BCHL’s strongest conference in recent years served notice on the weekend that it’s only going to get tougher to survive this time around, winning 10 of its 12 games against Mainland and Coastal Division rivals at the league’s 3rd Annual Showcase in Chilliwack and picking up 21 of a possible 24 points.

The Centennials split their weekend outings — winning 5-3 over the Cowichan Valley Capitals on Saturday before being edged 2-1 by the host Chilliwack Chiefs in the final game of the Showcase Sunday.

Week one of the regular season finds Merritt in last place in its division, a point behind the fifth-place Vernon Vipers, who won once and lost in overtime on the weekend. In a four-way tie atop the standings are the Penticton Vees, Salmon Arm Silverbacks, Trail Smoke Eaters and West Kelowna Warriors, all of whom swept their weekend games.

Cents head coach and GM Luke Pierce is not the least bit concerned about where his team finds itself going into the second weekend of BCHL play.

“We’ve got a long way to go. The important thing is not to panic. I like the make-up of our team.”

Pierce went on to say that the Showcase event is always a tough one for his team.

“Our team will never stand out at the Showcase. We just haven’t spent much time on systems and structure by the time it comes up. For me, it’s more important that we concentrate [in the early going] on good habits and other details that I think are crucial if a team wants to be successful long-term.”

The Cents were a bit slow out of the gate against the Caps on Saturday (being outshot 22-13 through 40 minutes), but they really got their mojo going in the third period. Diego Cuglietta, Gavin Gould and John Schiavo scored in a span of just under seven minutes to break open a 2-2 tie and lead Merritt to victory.

Brandon Duhaime in the opening period and Schiavo’s first of the game at the midway point of the second had countered Cowichan goals by Colton Kehler and Sean Harrison.

“It might appear that we were outplayed through two periods, just looking at the shot totals,” Pierce said, “but I think our ideas and thought processes were right. It was just our execution that was off.

“I thought our players did a good job of staying patient and sticking to the game plan. On the bench, I never felt a sense of urgency. We really took over the game after John’s goal in the second and controlled it from that point on.”

Netminder Jonah Imoo picked up his first regular-season win in a Cents’ uniform, stopping 28 of 30 shots, while Merritt directed 25 pucks at the Caps’ newcomer in net, Lane Michasiw.

The Cents went one-for-three on the powerplay, while the Caps where zero-for-four with the man advantage.
Sunday’s Cents-Chiefs encounter was a bit of a snoozer. As the score might indicate, the game was more a chess match than a Battlestar Galactica.

“It was the end of the Showcase, the atmosphere seemed to be gone and the excitement was over,” Pierce said. “There was no buzz around the rink.”

Michael Ederer got the Cents on the board first with a nice tap-in at the 18:26 mark of the opening period. The Chiefs replied with the only goal of the second stanza, courtesy of Luke McColgan.

Neither team could muster the go-ahead marker until 11:01 of the third period when McColgan stripped the puck from a Cents’ defender while the Chiefs were playing shorthanded and passed out front to a wide-open Kurt Black who made no mistake in beating a helpless Imoo with the game-winner.

“We got outcompeted on their second goal,” was all Pierce would say.

The Cents finished with 34 shots on Chilliwack’s Mitchell Datz, while Imoo turned aside 27 of 29 opposition pucks in his second successive start of the weekend. Merritt managed one powerplay goal on seven chances, and successfully killed off all five Chilliwack man-advantage opportunities.

Home opener this Saturday against high-flying Vees

Merritt Centennials fans will get their first proper look at this year’s team when the Cents play their home opener against the visiting Penticton Vees on Saturday, starting at 7:30 p.m.

It will be ‘Murray GM Night’ at the arena with a ton of prizes and promotions all evening long, starting with a pre-game tailgate party.

The Vees will be worthy opponents, having defeated the Centennials 8-1 in both teams’ final exhibition game on September 13 and outscoring their opposition 15-5 in their pair of wins at this past weekend’s BCHL Showcase in Chilliwack.

Penticton, which has 13 players already committed to American colleges and universities next season, is led by NHL draft picks Jack Ramsey and Miles Gendron, captain Cody DePourcq and a plethora of talented rookies, including Tyson Jost and Lewis Zetter-Gossage.

The Centennials got down to the required BCHL roster limit of 22 players on the weekend by returning young, 17-year-old defenceman Connor Prechal to the Princeton Posse of the KIJHL.