The Interior Conference gets things started tonight in the Shaw BCHL Playoffs, but tomorrow night, the Coastal Conference begins play, so let’s break down all four matchups.
#1 Alberni Valley Bulldogs vs. #8 Cowichan Valley Capitals
Alberni Valley won the season series 7-2-0-0.
Alberni Valley – F Josh Zary (55 points), F Stephen Castagna (51 points), G Hobie Hedquist (five shutouts)
Cowichan Valley – F David Jacobs (52 points), F Luke Haymes (49 points), F Massimo Sarantos-Lombardi (41 points)
Alberni is a heavy favourite here, given they finished first in the conference and they won seven of nine games against Cowichan in the regular season.
The Bulldogs relied on a committee approach to scoring this year and it served them well. They do not have a player in the top-20 in league scoring, but they had four different players with over 40 points and six with more than 30. They were led by 20-year-old forwards Josh Zary and Stephen Castagna who finished tops in team scoring. Although their offensive performance was a group effort, the same cannot be said in net as the team relied heavily on their starter Hobie Hedquist. The 2003-born netminder led the BCHL in minutes and games played, while posting a 2.53 goals-against average, a .909 save percentage and five shutouts, which was second most in the league.
The Capitals on the other hand were the final team to qualify for the postseason, clinching after the Powell River Kings lost their final game of the season. Cowichan has a group of players who can produce at a high level on any given night, led by David Jacobs, who was recently named the BCHL’s 1st Star of the Week. They also found stability in net over a month into the season. That’s when they picked up McCoy Bidewell who was playing Junior B for the Fernie Ghostriders of the KIJHL. After making his BCHL debut on Nov. 18, Bidewell went on to take over the starter’s role and appeared in 29 games the rest of the way, finishing with a .909 save percentage.
#2 Chilliwack Chiefs vs. #7 Coquitlam Express
Chilliwack won the season series 7-2-0-0
Chilliwack – F Cameron Johnson (65 points), F Dawson Good (55 points), F Kienan Draper (50 points), D Abram Wiebe (31 points)
Coquitlam – F Ryan Tattle (60 points), F Ray Hamlin (48 points), D Matthew Campbell (39 points)
The Chiefs won six straight to close out the season and grab second place in the conference, but the Express won six of their last seven to close out their campaign, which makes it an intriguing matchup.
Chilliwack has an array of offensive talent, including Cameron Johnson, Dawson Good and Kienan Draper and not to mention 2020 Anaheim Ducks draft pick and four-year BCHL veteran Ethan Bowen who had a productive year despite missing significant time with injuries. It’s not only the forward that produce for Chilliwack, but the defencemen get in on the act as well. Abram Wiebe, Xavier Henry and Lachlan Getz each finished with over 20 points on the year with Henry’s eight goals tying him for third most among all BCHL blueliners. The Chiefs also gave up the second-least goals against in the Coastal Conference. Much of that has to do with strong defensive play, but they also have dependable goaltending in Grant Riley who owns a 2.47 goals-against average, fifth-best in the BCHL.
Coquitlam caught fire in late February and carried that all the way until the final game of the regular season. Early in March, they were neck and neck with Cowichan and Powell River for the final playoff spot, but quickly pulled away to finish in seventh place by a wide margin. The game that started that run was a Feb. 26 matchup against the Victoria Grizzlies where team captain Ryan Tattle led a dramatic third-period comeback with four goals and five points in the final frame alone, all on Score for Cancer Night, which was his initiative to raise money for cancer research. Tattle finished 12th in league scoring. On defence, the Express have one of the league’s most prolific offensive defencemen in Matthew Campbell. The second-year man led all BCHL defencemen with 11 goals and finished fourth in points. Coquitlam also acquired goaltender Carter Woodside before the trade deadline to become the team’s starter. He went 10-6-0-1 down the stretch.
#3 Nanaimo Clippers vs. #6 Surrey Eagles
Nanaimo won the season series 3-2-0-1.
Nanaimo – F Sean Donaldson (70 points), F Max Itagaki (61 points), F Tristan Fraser (57 points), G Cooper Black (.924 SV%)
Surrey – F Jake Bongo (48 points), F Michael Abgrall (46 points), F Jacob Slipec (39 points), F Primo Self (39 points)
Looking at the season series, this should be a tight matchup. The teams split three wins each in their six matchups, with the Clippers getting the slight edge since one of their losses came in the shootout.
Nanaimo has some serious scoring ability at the top of their lineup. Sean Donaldson, Max Itagaki and Tristan Fraser form one of the deadliest trios in the league. All three of them finished in the top-20 in league scoring with Donaldson ending up as the BCHL’s seventh-highest point producer. The Clippers as a team scored the fourth-most goals in the league during the regular season. Like all good offensive teams, they get production from their back end as well. BCHL rookie Ethan Mistry had a solid campaign on defence and so did 2002-born blueliner Michael Craig. The Clippers balance their high-octane offence with great goaltending from Cooper Black who led the BCHL in save percentage. He missed some time with an injury, but Nanaimo got him back and rolling again the last month of the season. His performance will be key to their playoff hopes.
Surrey has about seven forwards that they rely on for consistent scoring. The production is usually spread out, but the biggest producers over the length of the season were Jake Bongo and Michael Abgrall who finished one and two respectively in team scoring. The two Slipec brothers, Jacob and Grayden have also been a fun part of the Eagles offence this year. Jacob is a 20-year-old BCHL vet in his fourth season in the league, while younger brother Grayden only recently turned 17 and is a rookie. The two have connected several times on some highlight-reel goals this season. The team will be without number-one defenceman and team captain Jimmy Darby for the first four games of the series due to suspension, so they will need to rely on the rest of their group to step up in his absence.
#4 Langley Rivermen vs. #5 Victoria Grizzlies
Victoria won the season series 3-2-0-0.
Langley – F Max Dukovac (59 points), F Tyler Schleppe (56 points), D Joseph Messina (33 points), G Ajeet Gundarah (.922 SV%)
Victoria – F Matthew Wood (85 points), F Ellis Rickwood (80 points), F Connor Eddy (57 points), D Clark Hiebert (56 points)
This should be another close series between two teams with the potential to go deep in the postseason.
Langley was at our near the top of the conference most of the season, but after dealing with some significant injuries, ended up dropping to fourth place in the final month. Despite that, the Rivermen had a very strong year, led by a group of 20-year-olds looking to make a lasting impression in their final season in the league. Tyler Schleppe, Riley Wallack, Ryan Upson and Max Bulawka are all 2001-born players and all eclipsed 40 points this year. They also got a huge season from 2002-born forward Max Dukovac, who led the team in scoring in his first BCHL campaign, as well as Joseph Messina, who finished top-10 in defencemen scoring. On top of all this success, the most significant development for Langley was the emergence of rookie goaltender Ajeet Gundarah. The 18-year-old was a rock for the Rivermen this year, finishing with the third-highest save percentage in the league. Gundarah missed most of the final two months of the season with an injury, so his health heading into the series will be of major importance to his team.
For Victoria, they simply boast two of the best offensive players in the league. Matthew Wood was an absolute phenom this season. Starting the year as a 16-year-old, Wood tore up the BCHL, leading the league with 85 points and 45 goals 46 games. Not to be outdone, his linemate Ellis Rickwood went almost point-for-point with him, racking up 80 points to finish second in league scoring , as well as 59 assists, which was best in the BCHL. As if that wasn’t enough, the Grizzlies also have the BCHL’s top-scoring defenceman in Clark Hiebert. It was not all good news for Victoria this year as they have dealt with long-term injuries to key players, including first-liner Connor Eddy and top-pairing d-man Isack Bandu. The team’s goaltending situation will be interesting to monitor as well. Kyle Kelsey and Cole Schwebius nearly split the games evenly during the season, with Kelsey having a slight 28 to 22 edge. We will have to see if one of the two takes over as the undisputed number-one or if they continue to rotate in and out depending on results.