***Note: I couldn't find any "preview" type of coverage of the Cents-Spruce Kings series online from either of the major PG newspapers.***
Cents prepare for high-flying Spruce Kings
March 15, 2012
The playoffs have finally arrived for the Merritt Centennials, who have put together a memorable season with some highly emotional battles and breaking a record.
By the time the buzzer went in the third period last Saturday night, the Merritt Centennials not only beat the Trail Smoke Eaters 5-2, clinching second place in the interior conference and home ice advantage for the post-season, they also beat their past record of lowest goals against.
The Cents set a new franchise mark this season with only allowing 171 goals, beating their 176 mark set in the 1978-79 season.
"To set an all-time record for goals against was never one of our goals at the beginning of our season, and to be honest, we never even realized we were within reach of the record until our final weekend," admits Cents head coach and GM Luke Pierce. "It says a lot about the commitment to team defence that this group has made, and these players should be extremely proud of the accomplishment."
The Cents also racked up their most wins since the 1988-89 season with 34 wins. They were 34-18 with 76 points, their highest point total since the '78-79 season.
The season's end also brought about the BCHL awards and all-star team naming.
Cents' leading scorer Regan Soquila picked up the Bob Fenton Trophy for Most Sportsmanlike Player in the interior conference. NHL prospect Reece Willcox was named to the BCHL Second All-Star Team for the interior conference.
The Cents fought hard to recover from a slump earlier this year and regained their dominant play through scoring and hitting.
"I thought we had a really good final 10 games, which is important," says Pierce.
The Cents recovery helped them retain second place for most of the latter half of the season before finally securing it in an interesting interior conference race.
In the end, the Cents ended up with home ice advantage against the Prince George Spruce Kings, who have really played well as of late, even ending the Penticton Vees' record-breaking winning streak in their last game of the regular season.
The BCHL playoff format will be the best of seven games in three rounds. The BCHL champion will then go on to the Doyle Cup to play the best team from the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
Pierce says Cents won't change much against Prince George
Coach Pierce says the Cents won't change much heading into their first round playoff series against the Spruce Kings.
The strategy going into Friday night's opening game of the series will be the same thing that got the Cents to their second place finish but with slightly more focus on defense going against snipers like Paul De Jersey, Michael Colantone, Jujhar Khaira, and the Fitzgerald triplets, according to Pierce.
"We don't want to change much; we have to be aware when they (De Jersey, Colantone, etc.) are on the ice.
De Jersey picked up two BCHL awards: the Brett Hull Trophy for top scorer and the most valuable player for the interior conference.
"The goaltenders on both sides match up well, and I think it's going to be a very good series. They've got a really big defensive core…I think they are a little more run and gun than we are."
The Cents have spent the week focusing on details in practice and watching video of past games with the Spruce Kings, whom they haven't played since early December, a 4-3 win. The Cents were 5-2 against the Kings this season, but most of those games were decided by only one goal.
"They are obviously a pretty big, pretty talented hockey team, so I think if we play our game, work hard, and use our speed, we'll have a good chance against them," says Cents captain Evan Stack.
"I think if we take the body on them and take away their time and space, then they start to get frustrated," he says of containing the Spruce Kings' offense.
Goaltenders Lino Chimienti and Tyler Steel worked well together all season splitting games. But a decision on who would play for the playoffs had not been announced by Wednesday.
It’s Cents vs Spruce Kings!
By Ian Webster - Merritt Herald
It’s being called the “one to watch”, “the best match-up in the first round of this year’s BCHL playoffs” and “a potential war”.
All the hype is about the best-of-seven series set to get underway this Friday between the Merritt Centennials and the Prince George Spruce Kings.
Both teams enter the highly-anticipated showdown following terrific regular seasons, and massive improvements over their results from one year ago.
Merritt finished second in the Interior Conference this season with a 34-18-2-6 record, good for 76 points. That represents a 25 point increase from last year’s sixth-place finish, and is the best points total for the club since 1978-79.
Prince George’s ascendancy has been even more remarkable. Dead last in 2010-11, the Spruce Kings rose to third in the Interior this year, just four points behind the Centennials. Their 33-21-2-4 record resulted in a 39-point leap in the standings from last season.
Adding to the sense of anticipation is the fact that the Cents and Spruce Kings have not played each other since December 9 - over three months ago.
“It’ll make for an interesting start to the series,” states Cents’ head coach and GM Luke Pierce. “There’ll be a bit of a feeling out process at the beginning I’m sure.”
While Merritt held the edge (5-1-0-1) in the seven early-season games played between the two teams, five of the contests were one-goal games, and two went to overtime.
“It was a really intense series with them,” says Pierce, “so I don’t think it will take long before we rekindle some animosity.”
Prince George head coach Dave Dupas is of a similar opinion.
“They were real good games with Merritt,” he said. “It’s going to be a huge battle.”
Dupas went on to add, “They [The Cents] work hard, they’re well coached, and they do all the little things right.”
Pierce knows that his players have their work cut out for them, too.
“Their top line is going to be a handful. They’ve got the best player in the division and top scorer in the league (Paul De Jersey), and two excellent linemates (Jujhar Khaira and Michael Colantone) with him.”
Pierce went on to say that the focus in practice this week has been on reviewing what the team needs to do to remain successful.
“At this point, we are not going to change who we are and how we play the game. Our focus will continue to be on strong team defense, on a solid work ethic, and on playing physical.”