Max French notched a hat-trick as West Kelowna beat Merritt 7-4 on Thursday to advance to the Interior Conference final.
Game five ended up being lop-sided, but I actually felt like this was another one that was closer than the score suggests. The Warriors pulled away early in the second, but the Centennials clawed back. Tyler Briggs also made arguably the save of the series on Scott Patterson early in the third, with French scoring less than a minute later. So instead of a 4-4 tie, it was 5-3 Warriors, and a cruise from there. The series ends in five games, but the Centennials really do need to be commended for a valiant effort.
Merritt hit hard, dug deep, and refused to back down all series long. At the end of the day, the Warriors had a very strong game on Thursday and deserve to advance. But hats off to Merritt for one heck of an effort.
Merritt had the first ‘grade A’ chance in this one, but Derek Huisman was poke-checked by Tyler Briggs a minute in.
3:42 into the game, Max French walked out of the corner and went shelf on Tyler Steel, giving the Warriors first blood and all the momentum on home ice. However, just 18 seconds later, a Charlie Donlin bid deflected off something and past Tyler Briggs.
The first ten minutes or so were absolutely crazy, with the fans (for both teams) amped up and tempers flaring on the ice as well. Matt Anholt soon found himself a date with Brent Fletcher. If pressed, I would give a narrow decision to Fletcher. Having said that, the Merritt captain is tough as nails, and Matt Anholt did himself and his team a great service by hanging in there and landing a couple of good late shots.
The Warriors also retook the lead eight minutes in when Danny Gayle deferred to Ambrose Firkus in front, with Firkus making no mistake. 2-1 Warriors halfway through the first, the contest had perhaps even more intensity than we’d seen previously in the series. Things did calm down though, and West Kelowna had a lead heading to the first intermission.
The Warriors found some open ice early in the second, and pushed to put the game away. Reid Simmonds potted his second of the series when he walked out from behind the net and slid the puck under Tyler Steel. A few minutes later, French struck again when he buried an Adam Plant rebound during a Warriors PP.
The Cents were in a bunch of penalty trouble, but stayed alive thanks to some impressive work on the PK. Merritt then clawed right back into the game, thanks to goals from Bennett Huber and Regan Soquila two minutes apart.
4-3 Warriors heading to the third, Tyler Briggs made perhaps the save of the series early in the final frame when he absolutely robbed Scott Patterson on what seemed like an open net. Moments later, French buried a 3-on-2. So instead of 4-4, the Warriors led 5-3. The game had swung West Kelowna’s way, and the Warriors never looked back.
Danny Gayle provided some insurance when he slipped the puck through Steel’s legs on a Matt Anholt feed (Anholt had a terrific game). Brennan Clark got another one with the Centennials gambling on a WK PP late in the game.
The Warriors had the game sewn up, and I was impressed (and relieved) that both teams calmed down in the dying minutes. Derek Huisman tipped home a Dane Birks point shot with two minutes left, to make the final score 7-4. Huisman’s goal meant nothing, but nicely wrapped up a first-rate BCHL career for him. Congrats to all of Merritt’s graduating players. The Centennials worked hard this year and made Merritt very proud. And there’s certainly no shame in the way they played or ended this series. This was a first-rate battle and a treat to watch.
The Warriors will take a couple of days off to recover from this tilt, before beginning the preparations for the Interior final vs. Penticton. It promises to be one heck of a series. But more on that in the coming days. For now, this group gets to celebrate a very hard-fought win over Merritt.
As for me, I have work to do as well. The broadcast started to work late in the game, but had all kinds of issues early on. Our internet connection is the culprit, so I’ll go back to work on trying to solve that. Thanks to the fans who continued to watch and listen on Thursday, and our apologies for interrupted content during such a big game. Needless to say, I’m very excited for what’s still to come…