Just 72 hours after dispatching the Smoke Eaters to wrap up the regular season, the Warriors open the 2014 playoffs against a vaunted rival.
The quest for the RBC Cup is now underway!
Speed vs. Size
The 2013-14 regular season was an outstanding campaign for the Warriors – one of the best this organization has had (In 07/08 Westside went 40-20 and finished second to … Penticton).
And there are some things for this club to be very proud of and build on heading into the post-season.
* Road Warriors – West Kelowna earned the best road record in the BCHL this year at 18-4-2-5. This team will only get home ice advantage for the first round, so success away from home will be vital to extending the season beyond the first round.
* Goal scoring – Coquitlam cranked out ten goals in their final outing, meaning the Express finish with 226 goals for, one more than West K. But, finishing with the second-highest goal total in 2013-14 (a year after finishing with the highest) sets this group up nicely heading into the playoffs. And besides, Coquitlam doesn’t play defence…
* Depth – We’ve been talking all year about West Kelowna’s depth up front, and given some of the injuries they’ve faced this year it’s easy to see how essential that depth has been (see goal scoring above). However, there have also been some clutch additions to the defensive corps, giving this club 7 legit ‘top-4’ types. Depth in net, too? Check.
* Potpourri – The Warriors were undefeated when playing for the third straight night this year (2-0-1). They only got outshot 14 times. They have an NHL draft pick (David Pope) and another kid on this year’s watch list (Jason Cotton). They went 23-10-1-1 in their own division, and I think we can all admit that the Interior remains the strongest division in the country. There’s experience all over the lineup, a good bond between the players, and support from the wings. I’m not sure I would want to face this club in the playoffs…
Areas for concern:
* Special teams – It’s just huge in the playoffs, and something the Warriors haven’t actually done all that well this year. For much of the year, WK had the worst PP and PK in the league, eventually finishing at 19.3% on the PP (5th) and 77.7% on the PK (15th). More to the point, there were games earlier in the season that were lost due to special teams. However, things have been much improved in the past couple of months. In fact, in the final ten games the Warriors were 9/39 on the PP and 27/35 on the PK, which ain’t all that bad. Certainly though, it will require outstanding special teams to emerge from the Interior. And a series against Vernon? I’m betting there will be some powerplays on offer.
* Overtime – OT is such a different animal in the playoffs it’s not really worth comparing to the regular season. For one thing, it’s 5-on-5 all night long, as opposed to 4-on-4 and then 3-on-3. However, games and series are determined by golden goals, so West Kelowna will be hoping to improve on this year’s regular season record of 2-3-5.
* Health – Well, yes. Health is huge in the playoffs. No question. A lot of that is luck, though West Kelowna will need to be aware of Vernon’s bruising style and try to avoid any unnecessary hostilities. As of now, I believe Jordan Masters (out since Feb 18th) and Taki Pantziris (out since Feb. 15th @ Vernon) are both day-to-day. Ryan Ivey is a little further away, and I’m not sure there even is a clear diagnosis as of yet (lower-body). But I’m hearing he could actually return at some point these playoffs, and maybe even in the first round.
Mac Ferner and Tyler Povelofskie go at it on Jan. 17th. John Hebert, photo
It was a little bittersweet to see West Kelowna win its final four games of the season only to lose the pennant to Penticton on a tie-breaker. And there are some people out there bemoaning what appears to be a much tougher first-round opponent as a result.
Then again, if you like hockey, and if you like the playoffs, how can you not be jacked about a series against such a great team and such a great rival? Here’s how the matchups shook down this year:
That breaks down to four wins for the Vipers, two for the Warriors, and one tie.
There were two OT games (both absolute thrillers in Vernon) and a combined scoreline of 25-20 Vipes.
In fact, if you go back through the history books (check out www.vipersdiehardfan.blogspot.ca) this has been a hard-fought grudge match ever since West K. arrived on the scene, with not much to pick from between the two organizations.
And of course, I find myself talking about home ice advantage in this matchup more than in any other. The Snakes stole a rare win at RLP on Feb. 1st, but neither team has had much success in each other’s barn. As the higher seed, that bodes well for the Tribe.
TJ Dumonceaux plays wrecking-ball on Feb. 1st. John Hebert, photo
The Vipers have been resurgent this year, and after missing the playoffs two years in a row Vernon is once again a serious contender. The Vipers jumped three spots in the standings this year, and earned 9 more wins (18 more points compared to 2012-13).
It may seem obvious, but Vernon’s strength lies in its rugged defensive corps. If you don’t count Mike Statchuk (who has mostly been playing up front) Vernon’s blueliners average 6’2” and 200 pounds. A few weeks shy of his 19th birthday, Ken Citron is the youngest guy back there. They can all skate well and Coach Williamson tries to give all of them fairly even amounts of ice-time. Beyond special teams and goaltending, this series may well be won and lost on how well Vernon’s D-men handle West Kelowna’s tricky forwards, and whether or not they can do it within the rules.
* It does look like Jared Wilson will miss games 1 and 2, after a 2-game ban for a blow-to-the-head major at the end of the year. Austin Smith, meanwhile, was pulled (apparently due to illness) in favour of Danny Todosychuk on Saturday in Merritt. Does Vernon have a number one guy yet? Doesn’t look like it. It’ll be interesting to watch that pan out, as the Vipers try to figure out who can carry a team through the playoffs and who can steal single games heading into the RBC.
It’s funny, but Vernon also struggled on special teams this year. At just 14.2 per cent, the Snakes finish with the worst PP in the league (just 11.1% on the road) combined with a respectable PK (81.5% = 9th). But again, it’s not as much about overall numbers as coming through when it counts, like when the Vernon penalty-killers absolutely stole the matchup on Feb. 15th.
Powerplay practice on Monday
A few quotes:
“We have to get our goals against down and tighten up defensively. We don’t have a lot of time to get ready, but we’re in the same boat as everyone else.” –Rylan Ferster
“We had some pretty good bouts against them this year. They’re a really physical team –we need to not back down from that. We need to be rock solid on our special teams.” –Matt Anholt
“We don’t want to get into a transition game. We want a cycle, grind-it-out type of hockey game” -Vipers Coach Jason Williamson (Feb. 1st at RLP).
“We’re going to go out and play old-time hockey like Eddie Shore, Toe Blake, Gordie Howe” –The Hanson Brothers.