The Penticton Vees renew acquaintances with a Divisional rival tonight, when they host the Merritt Centennials at the SOEC and it’s their annual Teddy Bear Toss Night (more info here).
The Vees and Cents’ haven’t played since October 16th, that was also a Wednesday and in that game, the Cents’ came back down 2-0, to win 3-2 in double-overtime; Shane Poulsen the OT hero. The Vees took the first encounter back on September 27th, 4-1, as they exploded for three third-period goals in the victory. For the third straight meeting, the game will be played at the SOEC but Friday the scene shifts back to Merritt.
Things are finally heating up, after this rivalry has been put on ice for the last two months. After tonight the Vees and Cents’ go right back at it Friday from Nicola Valley Arena (a cozy spot) but don’t meet again until the New Year, in another home-and-home series starting on January 3rd.
The Vees are coming off a 9-4 rout of the Chilliwack Chiefs last Saturday at home, a game in which seven different Vees scored and 13 picked up at least a single point. Despite the big win and posting a 6-3-0-2 record in November, it was a month of ups and downs. The Vees won back-to-back games just once in November and will be looking to buck that trend starting tonight.
The Cents are coming in not having won in their last three games, their most recent result a 1-1 tie with Powell River on November 30th. One night earlier they were shutout 1-0 in Vernon and the game before that, were saddled with a 2-1 loss in Surrey. Goals have been hard to come by in this mini-slump for the Cents, as they’ve found the back of the net just twice in three games.
- I’ve written ad nauseam about the Vees record after a loss, which is very good but their record after a win has been, well, spotty at best. Their November has been well documented and the Vees are just 7-6-1-2 coming off a win; something that doesn’t really jump out at you. They’ve pretty much alternated wins and losses since October 25th, with the one exception being back-to-back wins on November 10th and 15th.
- So what has been their issue in trying to get on a roll? Well, it’s not so cut and dry but one, it’s a very competitive Division / league this season, with no real weak sister; no soft games. Two, they’re a young team, one with only four twenty year-olds and with youth come issues with consistency. The Vees roster has a large contingent of rookies stepping up from Midget or High School hockey; not an easy transition to make. This team has shown they can be a contender and have beaten some of the best teams. Their record versus the three Divisional leaders (Vernon, Langley and Powell River): 4-1-1-0; that’s nine out of a possible 12 points. This group needs to find a balanced approach moving into December, find a way to smooth out the peeks and valleys.
- Prior to their last game, I wrote about the need to have better starts and they did, scoring not even two minutes into the game against Chilliwack and built up a 3-0 lead at one point. Great to see that type of response but that was just one game and they will need more of the same tonight. Merritt might be a bit fragile, a team that’s win-less in three games. The Vees can’t let the Cents feel good about themselves early but rather go after their opponent and get them thinking “here we go again.” When the Vees score first their 12-3-0-2, compared to the Cents who are 7-9-1-1 when surrendering the first goal.
- The start is key but the finish is more crucial. As mentioned, it was a great start for Penticton Saturday but they let their foot off the gas just long enough for Chilliwack to quickly erase that three-goal lead. Credit the Vees for responding with six unanswered goals but they need to find that consistency (here I go again saying the ‘c’ word). They had a great start last time they played Merritt, scoring once in each of the first two periods and had a 2-0 lead late into the second. But they backed off just long enough for Merritt to score a late goal in the period, which helped them rally in the third. Three consistent periods will be needed against the Cents. It’s a must against a team like Merritt that pushes you from start to finish.
- As every team is at this point of the season, the Vees are a bit battered and bruised. Josh Blanchard is still on the Injured Reserve (retroactive to November 10) and Cam Amantea likely won’t play tonight, as he is nursing an upper-body ailment. To help fill the void upfront, the Vees have called up 15 year-old Tyson Jost from the Okanagan Rockets. Jost leads the Rockets in scoring (15-17-32) and is second in the league scoring race. He hasn’t looked out-of-place in the two games he’s suited up for the Vees and in fact has played so well, he saw first line minutes in both those games.
- Another fresh face will be making his Vees debut tonight, as newly acquired Steen Cooper will center Brad McClure and Ben Dalpe on a new look first line. Cooper got his first day of practice in yesterday and will have this morning’s pre-game skate before hitting the ice for real tonight; not much to go off of. It will likely take him a handful of shifts to start to feel comfortable but he’s got two talented line-mates to help ease the transition.
- Travis Blanleil leads the Vees in scoring against Merritt, with two goals and three points. He’s closely followed by Brett Beauvais (0-3-3) and Ben Dalpe (1-1-2). Hunter Miska started both games against the Cents and has sparkling numbers (1.87 GAA .926 SV %). Miska has started the last four games going back to November 23rd but if I were to play a hunch, I would guess Olivier Mantha gets the start tonight.
- It’s the official halfway mark of the season tonight as the Vees play game number 29. They’re 17-7-1-3 so far and pretty much on pace with last season. One year ago through 28 games (56 game schedule) the Vees were 18-7-0-3. Right where they should be I suppose.
- I’ll touch on it again, the special teams seem to be trending in the right direction. The power-play is number one in the BCHL at 23.85 % and a league best at Home as well (23.53 %). The PK isn’t too shabby either, ranked third overall (85.71%) and at Home (88.46%). The Vees power-play is clicking at 26 percent in their last five and the PK is hovering around 84 % in the same stretch. Merritt is usually a well-disciplined team that doesn’t take a whole lot of penalties (just seven in two games so far against Penticton), so the Vees will have to make the most of their opportunities.
- Yes, win-less in three but the Cents can take comfort knowing they won in this building the last time they made a trip to the SOEC. In fact, going back to last year, the Cents are 4-2 in their last six visits to the SOEC. They won three of four meetings in Penticton last season, including shutting out the Vees 1-0. There’s some 11 players from that team that are back this year, so they know how to win here.
- In order for this team to have success, they need strong contributions from the “big four” of Scott Patterson, Sebastien Pare, Diego Cuglietta and Jeff Wight. When these four are going, this team is hard to beat but there in lies the problem. Cuglietta and Patterson haven’t scored in three games and Pare hasn’t scored in nine games. Wight is humming along with four goals in as many games that’s just a quarter of this quartet. Cuglietta was arguably one of the best players on the ice when the Vees and Cents last played in October; they’ll need more out of him tonight.
- One revelation has been James Neil, who has four goals and five points in his last four games and has 19 points so far this season. The Cents took a flyer on Neil who was acquired from the Powell River Kings in the off-season for future considerations; shrewd GM move by Luke Pierce. By judging by their line-up, Neil won’t be dressing as he’s listed as injured; unlucky timing.
- Devin Kero had started the Cents last eight games posting a 4-2-1-1 record over that stretch but won’t even dress tonight; he too is injured. So it’s Russell Sanderson getting the nod between the pipes and will make his first start since November 2nd; nearly a month between starts. Sanderson missed a good chunk of time this season with an upper-body injury and since his return it’s been Kero getting the bulk of the starts. Kero had played both games against the Vees and was excellent in both, including the 4-1 loss on September 27th.
- The area that needs to be shored up for Merritt is their secondary scoring. They haven’t got a goal from their third or fourth line in six games. Their third line of Payton Schaefer, Sam Johnson and Bennett Huber haven’t scored in 20, 19 and 17 games respectively. Their fourth line has fared better, as Rhett Wilcox and Gavin Gould haven’t scored in six games and Zach Hartley in 10. That fourth line is young, two 17 year-olds and an 18 year-old. But Luke Pierce will want more out of Schaefer (20), Johnson (19) and Huber (19). No, these six aren’t counted on heavily to score but secondary scoring goes along way in this league.
- Despite missing some key pieces, the effort you get from Merritt won’t change. The Vees will still have to expect a hard-nosed and honest effort from the Cents. As the saying goes, “hard-work beats skill, when skill is hardly working.”
On the Broadcast: I’ll chat with both coaches prior to puck-drop in our pre-game show on EZ Rock AM 800. In the first intermission, Brendan Lamont talks about his time in Merritt and facing his former team. In the second intermission it’s newly acquired Steen Cooper, chatting about his Vees debut. Pre-game show gets going at 6:40pm with first period play-by-play at 7pm.