I’ve been guilty of writing teams off in the past. I’ve said it about junior hockey, major league baseball, and others and I really should know better by now but I’ve done it again. Several weeks back I pretty much wrote off the Alberni Valley Bulldogs’ post-season hopes and it looks more and more like I just might have to eat my words.
The Bulldogs were mired in the Island division’s basement, 10 points back of a playoff spot in November and no real evidence of improvement on the horizon. But since then Alberni has climbed within four points of the fourth-place Nanaimo Clippers while holding a game in hand. Going 4-2-1 in their last seven games including a win over the Smoke Eaters in Trail and a three-point weekend in Powell River should be opening plenty of eyes, perhaps nowhere more so than in Nanaimo. While the Bulldogs are picking up much-needed wins, the Clippers continue to struggle.
Nanaimo has shown positive signs of late, opening the month of December with a 5-4 win over visiting Cowichan Valley and putting up a 4-3 overtime victory Friday night at home over Wenatchee. But the Clippers’ pace hasn’t been enough to fend off the surging Bulldogs. The two play each other four more times this season, a series that could very well determine the lone Island team to miss the playoffs. While the Clippers did receive a checking-from-behind penalty Friday night against Wenatchee along with a fight in the same game, Nanaimo has done a better job of late when it comes to discipline. And surprise, surprise, it’s resulted in points! I have been quite critical of the Clippers’ disturbingly dirty play in the past and it’s good to see them clean up their act a bit. Let’s see if it continues.
Despite playing without two of their top-4 defencemen, the Cowichan Valley Capitals continue to hang onto third place in the Island division. Ben Verrall and Nii Noi Tetteh remain sidelined with injuries but the Caps did pick up 18 year-old Marshall Skapski from the Merritt Centennials earlier in the month to help deal with the blue line issues. The Capitals earned a very respectable pair of wins in Trail and Surrey on a tough weekend road trip suffering a 5-1 loss in Penticton Saturday night. The Capitals are 3-2 in December and have a six-point lead over Nanaimo for third, trailing second place Powell River by five. With both Verrall and Tetteh expected back in the New Year, perhaps the Capitals will be able to be in fairly solid position come January’s trade deadline.
Despite being decimate on the blue line, the Penticton Vees continue to win. Gabe Bast is back on the IR yet again while both Griffin Mendel and Jonny Tychonick are with Canada West at the World Junior A Challenge in Bonnyville, AB. But even so, Penticton has surrendered just seven goals against in four games this month. The Vees have given up a league best 66 goals against on the season and I get the sense they are still not content with their abilities at the other end of the ice. Despite averaging over 3.5 goals for per game, look for the Vees to add a goal scoring forward prior to the January 10th deadline.
We can probably call the division for the Vees at this point with a 17-point lead over second place Vernon, but the rest of the Interior remains a total crapshoot. The Vipers have comfortably leveled out after a rough early November and have points in three of their last four games. But no one can get very comfortable at all because a couple of losses could quickly find you at the bottom of the heap. There’s just a six-point spread between Vernon and the last place Silverbacks who have really picked up their play having yet to lose in December. Salmon Arm played just once over the weekend, skating to a 4-4 draw with the Vipers. They started the month with a rare overtime win in Penticton, followed up by a convincing 7-2 victory over the Smokies, and a 4-3 win in West Kelowna. Misko Antisin is getting results since taking over the head coaching reigns and is pulling the Silverbacks back into the playoff discussion.
The Merritt Centennials and West Kelowna Warriors both sit just a single point ahead of Salmon Arm and it was the defending national champions who had a much-needed big weekend, sweeping a home-and-home set with the Cents. Friday’s game in West Kelowna saw Merritt pick up the critical overtime loser point but the Centennials really need to pick up their socks. The Centennials have lost a league-high six times in overtime so far this season and while those points have certainly benefitted, imagine if even half of those ended up in the win column. That would put the Cents in a tie with Trail for third in the ever-changing division standings. This will certainly be a fight to the finish once again, but I’m a little surprised we’re looking at a sub-.500 Centennials squad. I really liked the moves Joe Martin made at last year’s trade deadline and over the summer but so far his team continues to underperform.
Is there a more bi-polar team in the BCHL than the Wenatchee Wild? I know that’s a strange thing to say about a squad that currently leads the league with 54 points, but you really don’t know what you’re going to see game to game. Last Wednesday the Wild were on the good end of the most lopsided game I have ever seen. They beat the Express 12-0 (in Coquitlam to make matters even worse for the home squad), but what was even more shocking was the shot total. The Wild out-shot the Express by a total of 64-6 including a 26-0 margin in the third. 26 shots. In one period. While the Express got none. My god. I know the Express continue to deal with an unprecedented injury list but there is ZERO excuse for that sort of performance even against the league leading Wild. Head Coach and GM Barry Wolff was probably pretty glad he was out of town at the time overseeing Canada West’s selection camp as the head coach for the WJAC defending champions.
Anyway, the Wild then followed that blitzkrieg with a 4-3 double overtime loss in Nanaimo Friday night. The Wild finished their Island trip with a 3-1 win in Victoria Saturday then squeaked out a 2-1 victory in Alberni Sunday. Such is the nature of junior hockey in particular but if there is one criticism of the Wild, it’s their lack of consistency. It could be their undoing come the playoffs.
Back to the Express and their outrageously horrendous season thus far. At 6-25-1-2 they are by far the worst team in the BCHL and have lost 16 straight. 16! They haven’t won a game in 18 (they earned a 3-3 tie against Prince George October 28th) since they beat…Wenatchee 5-4 October 21st. Go figure. The Express have allowed 26 goals against in their last three games alone. They have a league worst -108 goal differential and a power play clicking at less than 10 percent. I don’t know how things could get any worse for Coquitlam but somehow they just might.
Don’t look now but one of the hottest teams in the BCHL is the Langley Rivermen. Going 5-2 in their last seven, Langley is closing in on the .500 mark and now sits just three points behind Prince George for third in the division. Starting goaltender Bo Didur is back in action and Bobby Henderson seems to have his squad rolling.