No doubt about it. The Penticton Vees are the class of the field in this year’s race to the Fred Page Cup, emblematic of junior A supremacy in the British Columbia Hockey League.
Before a rather sparse Tuesday night crowd of 556 fans at the Nicola Valley Memorial Arena, the Vees got three goals in transition and one empty netter to defeat the host Merritt Centennials 4-1 in a battle of the top two teams in the BCHL’s Interior Conference.
With over a dozen NCAA and NHL scouts in the building, Cents ‘killer’ Bryce Gervais once again proved to be the difference maker, as the former Salmon Arm Silverback scored the Vees’ first goal, and the team’s insurance marker in a contest that saw the Cents dominate the final 30 minutes of action, and outshoot the visitors 31-29 on the night.
The diminutive Gervais got Penticton on the board just 3:23 into the first period on a nice from-behind-the-net feed from linemate Steven Fogarty after the Cents turned over the puck in the neutral zone.
“I thought that we started off a little bit tentative,” stated Centennials head coach and GM Luke Pierce. “We panicked a bit when we shouldn’t have, and were hesitant sometimes when we didn’t need to be.”
Pierce went on to add, “Against the Vees, you just can’t take chances, and make high risk plays. They transition so quickly.”
Penticton’s second and third goals, in the first half of periods two and three, came from similar miscues by Merritt in pushing the puck forward and trying to gain the opposition’s blueline.
Ryan Reilly finished off a pretty 3-on-1 with a tip-in of a pass from brother Mike at 8:47 of the middle frame. Joey Benik then buried a nice pass from the hard-working Fogerty at 5:25 of the final stanza to put the Vees up by three going into the home stretch.
The Cents did not give up however. Instead, they played some of their best hockey in the final 15 minutes of regulation, and were rewarded on the powerplay when Chad Brears put home the rebound of an Evan Stack shot on net with 5:39 remaining.
Despite a big push by the Centennials to make it a one-goal game, it was Gervais who tallied the empty-netter at 18:43 of the third with Merritt goaltender Lino Chimienti pulled for a sixth attacker.
While disappointed in his team’s loss to the high-flying Vees, Pierce felt the match-up was both timely and worthwhile.
“It was good to play them, and just see how much better we need to get. Call it a good bench mark game.”
Pierce particularly enjoyed the line-matching that went on all night, something that he doesn’t normally feel he needs to indulge in.
“It was a bit of a chess match. Against [Penticton], I just like the way we match up [line for line]. For the most part, I think it proved very effective.”
Pierce was also pleased with the performance he got from Chimienti between the pipes, noting that he could have chosen the Montreal native or Tyler Steel without any hesitation.
“They’ve both been playing great. It just so happened that there were a couple of [NCAA] schools interested in seeing Lino play. There’s no question he did everything he could to help us win the game.”
The loss to the Vees on Tuesday followed two impressive victories by the Cents this past weekend. Friday, Evan Stack’s 12th goal of the season at the 9:41 mark of the third propelled Merritt past the Prince George Spruce Kings 4-3. On Saturday, it was Steel recording his second shutout of the season in a 3-0 blanking of the visiting Trail Smoke Eaters.
The Centennials close out their pre-Christmas schedule with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in town on Friday at 7:30 p.m., and a visit to the home of the Westside Warriors on Saturday.
The Cents then enjoy an 11-day break before playing the Warriors again on Dec. 29.