Thursday, February 24, 2011

Playoffs Underway

Unfortunately for the Spruce Kings, they will not be in the 2011 edition of the BCHL Playoffs, but not for a lack of trying. I know ... I already covered that, but if I could allow me to just say one more time how impressed I was with the push they gave to get in.

The very first game of the BCHL Playoffs could very well have been the Spruce Kings up against the Penticton Vees on Thursday night. The first series between the second place and seventh place team had to get started one night earlier than the rest of the series because of the arena being booked for a Toby Keith concert on Saturday night.

The Penticton Vees saw the Quesnel Millionaires as recently as Saturday night where the Millionaires skated with the Penticton Vees early but could not maintain the pace dropping a 5-2 decision. That same scenario basically played out on this night again with the two teams tied at 1-1 after the first period on the strength of a pair of early goals traded in the first five minutes.

In the second period, the second best team in the Interior Division started to pull away from their first round opponents and scored a pair of goals in both the second and third periods to register the 5-1 win. The two will meet again on Friday night in the South Okanagan Events Centre and the other five series will also start up around the league.

In the Interior, the Westside Warriors (4) and the Trail Smoke Eaters (5) will start their best of seven series in West Kelowna. This is the series that has generated the most votes around the league as the series most likely to go the distance.

The Westside Warriors have a lot of fire power up front with five players all finishing with over 50 points each and 136 goals between them. Defensively their is some big bodies back there including Prince George Minor Hockey product - Michael King and five other NCAA Division I committed players on the blue line.

Don't look for either of the Warriors goaltenders in the league's top ten, but even if that is the weak link ... don't expect it to be the breaking point. Kevin Boyle finished with a respectable 3.02 goals against average and a save percentage better than 90 percent. Cole Holewenko may have single-handedly kept the Spruce Kings from realizing their post-season aspirations stopping 20 of 21 shots in the third period of the final game in the regular season.

There's a reason this series is thought to be the series most likely to go the distance and that is the Trail Smoke Eaters and especially what they showed they are capable of doing early in the season. The one knock going into the first round is that they have the memories of having their post season ended twice in a row by the Westside Warriors.

For the Trail Smoke Eaters their strength starts from between the pipes with the best goaltending tandem in the Interior Conference. The rookie goaltender Matt Larose saw the fewer number of goals with Kiefer Smiley playing a majority of the games. Larose finished with a 2.67 GAA and 92.40 save percentage; Smiley was right there with a GAA of 2.83 and a 91.50 save percentage.

Like the Warriors, the Trail Smoke Eaters boast five players that have registered over 50 points each. Conversely the Smoke Eaters defensive core is not nearly as decorated with only Jake Baker and Eric Walker having secured NCAA Division I scholarships.

At the trade deadline the Trail Smoke Eaters acquired Nic DeSousa from the Spruce Kings and since playing for the Big Smoke, the Fraser Lake export has picked up 14 points (4 goals and 10 assists) in 16 games for a season total of 56 points (17 goals and 29 assists) in 60 games. The DeSousa trade was the only move made by the Smoke Eaters at the trade deadline and was designed to compliment the team's top two lines.

The other series in the Interior Division has the Salmon Arm Silverbacks (3) hosting the Merritt Centennials (6) for the first two games of their best of seven series. The Silverbacks stubbed their toes coming out of the regular season with a 10-5 loss to the Coquitlam Express in game sixty. The loss cost the Silverbacks second place in the Interior Conference and prevented a repeat of last year's first round of the playoffs with the Quesnel Millionaires.

Excluding that one game blemish, the Silverbacks strung together an 8-1-0-1 record to finish the season scoring 55 goals against their opponents. Mike Hammond finished the regular season as the League's top scorer finishing with 93 points (39 goals and 54 assists). Seven forwards finished with a better than 50 points each and a pair of defenceman were on the doorstep of that magic marker.

The depth of the Silverbacks was evident with the selection of Bryce Gervais as the Interior Conference Rookie of the Year. Tim Kehler also won the Coach of the Year award. Hardware aside, the Silverbacks have worked hard since the off-season to get to where they are this season and won't be pushed to an early exit easily by the Centennials.

Despite struggling for points in their final ten games, the Merritt Centennials seemed to be working on specific areas of their game and may have gotten all the parts working in unison just in time for game sixty. The Centennials will be a bit of an unknown because of this but will have to go for a split in Salmon Arm before bringing the series back to the Nicola Valley Arena where they have the chance to surprise their opposition.

The offensive scales are not balanced in this series with the Merritt Centennials having only one player with a better than a 50 point season heading in to the playoffs. The Centennials saw the Spruce Kings put together victories first hand on the strength of a team defense first approach ... if they use that approach and truly believe in "One Town. One Team. One Dream." they will be able to overcome the loss of JP Witkop who was suspended for the first two games of the series.

Of course the Vernon Vipers received a first round bye finishing with the best record in the Interior Division. The Powell River Kings also get a first round bye after finishing as the league's best team this year. The Coastal Kings picked up points in 51 of 60 games finishing with an 46-9-3-2 record.

In the Coastal Conference, the first round series will see the Surrey Eagles (2) welcome back the Coquitlam Express (7) to the BCHL Playoffs after the Express missed out on post season play the two previous years. The Coastal Conference most offensively gifted team, the Langley Chiefs (3) will host the Alberni Valley Bulldogs (6).

Billed as the Coastal Conference most heated rivalry and expected to be one of the most intense playoff matchups, the Victoria Grizzlies (4) won home ice advantage over their first round opponent the Nanaimo Clippers (5) in their final game of the season.

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