Surprises stop short of upsets

The first round of the BCHL playoffs are in the books with the second round set to get underway later this week. While the coming series matchups don’t really come as any surprise, the opening round was full of surprising and in some cases nearly shocking turns of events.

I think it’s safe to say the Prince George Spruce Kings, despite eventually falling to the Wenatchee Wild in six games, provided the most raised eyebrows. As I stated on these pages several weeks ago, I would have considered Prince George taking even one game in the best-of-seven series as a moral victory of sorts for the Spruce Kings. But after the severe underdogs lost the first three games they put up one hell of a fight to stave off elimination twice with convincing 7-4 and 3-1 wins in games four and five before pushing the series back to Wenatchee. They would never say so publically but you have to think the Wild were starting to sweat a bit, especially midway through game six where it looked as if Wenatchee would not only need a seventh game but also lose at home in regulation for the first time in a season and a half. Down 3-1 well into the third period, the Wild cut the Spruce King’s lead to one at the 8:02 mark thanks to a Matthew Baker power play goal. Then with their goalie pulled for the extra attacker, the Wild tied the game with exactly one minute remaining. Almost as if we all knew this would happen, the Wild left no doubt scoring the series clinching goal with just six seconds left on the clock, Baker’s second of the game and fifth of the series.

It was an appropriately wild finish to the series as the best team through the regular season moves on to face the Chilliwack Chiefs, who finished second in the overall standings, in the Mainland division final for a second straight season. Interestingly enough the Chiefs are the only team to beat the Wild in Wenatchee all season posting a pair of overtime wins in late December.

As thrilling as the victory for the Wild was, the agony of defeat for Prince George has to be so much greater. The Spruce Kings collapsed, plain and simple. It’s a heartbreaking loss for Prince George who was mere seconds away from overtime which would have at least kept their hopes alive a bit longer. Had Prince George pushed the series to the distance, the pressure on Wenatchee would have been tremendous. Up 3-0 in the series, the Wild would have faced a massive collapse of their own, but thanks to some late game heroics we’ll never know how that might have turned out.

The Chiefs never had quite the same level of difficulty getting out of the first round but the Langley Rivermen sure did make things interesting at times. That should really come as no surprise given how well the Rivermen had played through the second half of the season. Getting the split in Chilliwack to start the series thanks to a game two overtime win, Langley came home with some quality momentum on their side. I attended game three at George Preston which featured a pretty fun atmosphere, thanks in large part to a strong contingent of Chiefs fans who made the trip down Highway 1. The game was pretty evenly played and featured a phantom Chiefs goal (the puck never crossed the line), penalties galore, and plenty of punishing hits. It was kind of like the entire BCHL wrapped into 60 minutes. There was even a punch-up in the stands involving an enraged father! Chilliwack pulled away in the third period getting out to a 4-1 lead but credit the Rivermen for continuing to battle back. Langley scored twice in the final eight minutes pulling within a goal with the extra attacker and less than a minute remaining, but they could not find the equalizer.

After Chilliwack took the 3-1 series lead with a game four win the following night, the Rivermen were down 3-0 after the first in game five but once again refused to give in. Langley scored five times in the second en route to a 6-4 win to push the series back to George Preston for a game six where the Chiefs managed to seal the deal. Without a doubt the Mainland semi-finals were the most entertaining of all first-round series and I give full marks to all four teams involved for incredible efforts.

Over in the Interior it was a completely different story with the Smoke Eaters and Centennials easily punching their way to the second round with series wins over the Silverbacks and Warriors respectively. The Smokies won a playoff series for the first time in ten years but perhaps the most impressive story has been the turnaround off the ice in Trail. It’s not like crowds at Cominco Arena were horrendously low even during the team’s recent 10-win season in 2013-14, but until the mid point of this season attendance wasn’t exactly strong either. But a solid team yielding results has the people of Trail excited once again while a combined 6,122 fans attended the Smokies’ three home games of the series including over 2200 for game five. Trail has now earned a second-round matchup with the Vernon Vipers who, like the Penticton Vees, have been sitting around the last two and a half weeks thanks to their first-round bye. It will be interesting to say the least to see how the break affects Vernon and Penticton who are both up against some serious momentum.

The Centennials’ defeat of the defending RBC Cup champion West Kelowna Warriors didn’t really come as a surprise but I doubt few predicted a sweep. As it was, the Warriors were inundated by injuries. The sweep is also a bit misleading as only game three (a 6-2 Merritt win) was decided by more than a single goal while the Cents clinched the series in overtime. At the season outset I predicted Merritt as a potential darkhorse. I would be very surprised to see them upset the Vees, however, as the Centennials have had a roller coaster of a season with some nice highs and some equally bad lows. But if they can ride atop their current wave a bit longer, who knows.

On the Island, things went about as expected. But if there was any surprise, I would say it was Nanaimo managing to win a game while keeping all five games in their series with Victoria close. When I watched the Clippers play late in the regular season they were a far cry from their offensive dominance over the past couple seasons. The only reason they managed to beat Cowichan in that particular game was because the Capitals played even worse in all three zones (the game was hard to watch quite honestly). Nevertheless, the Clippers pulled it together and made a series out of it although the Grizzlies’ eventual win was never really in doubt.

Cowichan’s spiral that started back in December continued right through to their demise in four games against Powell River who cruised to the sweep. The Capitals held a lead for less than a combined 25 minutes in the series (all in game four). Last season the two played a hard fought six game series that the Kings eventually won with three of them going to overtime. It was a completely different story this time around. Last year the Kings were swept in the second round by Nanaimo thanks in large part to being beat up and tired from their first round series, but this year both the Kings and Grizzlies are relatively healthy and rested which should make for an enticing Island division final.

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