Victories over West Kelowna and Vernon the result of improved discipline and special teams play

The Merritt Centennials’ seven-game losing streak ended on the weekend, as the team won two of its three important outings against BCHL Interior Division rivals.

Friday night, at the Royal LePage Place in West Kelowna, the Cents finally dumped their three-week slump with a hard-earned 4-1 road victory over the hometown Warriors.

Rookie Tyler Ward, Gavin Gould, Colin Grannary and Mark O’Shaughnessy (with his first in the BCHL) all tallied for Merritt, while only WK’s Tanner Campbell, 18 seconds into the game, managed to beat Cole Kehler in the Merritt net.

As is the norm whenever these two teams meet, Friday’s game was a fractious affair with numerous scrums after the whistle and a couple of scraps in the third period.

“It was a chippy game,” Cents head coach and GM Joe Martin said. “We got a lead, and they were targeting a few of our players. Their captain [Kyle] Marino always wants to stir things up. You just have to stay patient and frustrate them with your play.”

Kehler finished with 40 saves on the night to pick up second-star honours behind Gould who had the one goal and was a thorn in the Warriors’ side all night with his speed and playmaking ability.

Saturday, Merritt played host to the Trail Smoke Eaters, the team nipping at their heels in the Interior standings. Despite playing another very good game, the Centennials were edged 3-2 by the crew from the Kootenays.

The Cents outshot the Smokies 36-26, but ran into a brick wall in Trail netminder Bailey MacBurnie who kept his team in the game all evening.

Harlan Orr gave Trail the early lead with the only goal of the first period. Spencer McLean made it 2-0 for the visitors in the second, before Ward notched his second and third goals of the weekend to even the score going into the final 20 minutes of regulation.

Both teams had quality scoring chances in the third period, but only Trail’s Nick Halloran could find the back of the net to secure the Smoke Eaters’ win and vault them past the Centennials into fifth spot in the Interior standings.

“Overall, I thought that we were the better team on the night,” Martin said. “We just made a couple of mental errors and they capitalized. I like [Trail’s] forward group. They create a lot and are difficult to handle. Their defence just throws the puck out of their zone, and if the forwards get it, they’re all over you.”

After the brief setback, the Centennials got back to their winning ways on Tuesday of this week, with a 4-1 road victory over the Vernon Vipers.

The win was no doubt fuelled by a delicious team dinner at the Kamloops’ home of Centennial Nick Fidanza en route to the week-day game. Martin was extremely pleased with the event, and his team’s subsequent performance against the Vipers.

“When you play Vernon, it’s kind of a controlled game. It’s not a back-and-forth track meet. I thought our guys rose to the occasion with our simple game plan and played well.”

After a scoreless first period at the Kal Tire Place in Vernon, Nick Jermain on the powerplay and Forbes shorthanded put Merritt up two goals by the nine-minute mark of the middle stanza. 

Odeen Tufto got one back for the hosts just 44 seconds into the third period. The Snakes went on to outshoot the Cents 15-4 in the final frame (and 30-28) on the night, but couldn’t put anything else past Kehler who appears to really be finding his groove between the Merritt pipes.

“Vernon definitely played better in the third, and we were definitely on our heels a bit,” Martin said. “Cole had to be good for us in net. The defence was under pressure a lot, but they didn’t make many mistakes.”

A pair of empty net goals by Zak Bowles and Jermain snuffed out any thoughts of a Vernon comeback. Gould had three assists, and picked up his second first-star honours in the last three games.

As important as the wins on the scoreboard was the performance of Merritt’s special teams — most notably the penalty kill. The Cents allowed just one goal on 10 opposition chances in the three games. That’s a 90 per cent rating – a big improvement on their season’s average of 60 per cent, the worst in the league.

“We didn’t change the structure [of our penalty kill] a lot, but we did change the personnel by going to players with a bit more experience,” Martin said. “We also allowed the players more freedom to compete for pucks when they sensed the opportunity was there.”

The Cents head coach also said it was nice to have defencemen Tyrell Buckley and Ryan Coghlin back in the lineup. The former had been out for over two weeks with a concussion, while the latter had missed the two weekend games after taking a stick to the face 10 days ago.

In the absence of Buckley and Coghlan on the weekend, the Cents called up affiliate-player Shane Kime from the North Vancouver Wolf Pack of the Pacific International Junior Hockley League (PIJHL). The 18-year-old rearguard played admirably, according to Martin.

“Shane fit in well. He’s a mobile defenceman who makes good plays with the puck,” the coach said. “I told Shane that if we hadn’t been healthy going into this week, I’d love to keep him around. I’m sure it won’t be the last time we see him.”

With their midweek game against Vernon out of the way, the Cents can now focus on their busy schedule this coming weekend, with three games in three days.

Merritt travels to Salmon Arm on Friday, prior to hosting the Victoria Grizzlies on Saturday night and the Cowichan Valley Capitals Sunday afternoon.

The Caps are cruising along in first place in the BCHL’s Island Division, while the suddenly-hot Grizzlies are winners of their last three games.

“We’re just going to be focused on continuing to play disciplined, smart hockey,” Martin said. “We have enough offence on our team that if we do a good job looking after our zone, the scoring will come naturally.”