Next up in our divisional playoff previews is the Interior Division. This year is unique as we have two crossover teams in the Prince George Spruce Kings and the Victoria Grizzlies, while the Penticton Vees and Trail Smoke Eaters will look to build on stellar regular seasons and go on a long postseason run.
#1 Penticton Vees vs. #8 West Kelowna Warriors
Head to head:
Penticton won all six matchups during the regular season with one coming in overtime.
The Vees possess one of the most potent offences in the league and finished the regular season with the second-most goals for in the BCHL. They’re led by 2018 Philadelphia Flyers first-rounder Jay O’Brien who finished fifth in league scoring with 66 points despite missing 12 games due to injury. He’s supported by several other standout scorers, including team captain David Silye, Danny Weight and Lukas Sillinger, who all finished in the top-20 in league scoring.
As impressive as they are up front, they are just as good on the back end with a group of veteran blueliners that includes Conner Hutchison, Evan McIntyre, Nico Somerville, Steve Holtz and Carson Kosobud. Even after losing one of their top pickups from the offseason, Carolina Hurricanes 2019 draft pick Cade Webber, they still managed to finish as a top-three defensive team, while getting plenty of production on offene from their blueline.
Yaniv Perets has been a rock for the Vees in between the pipes this year. The 19-year-old posted 25 wins in 37 appearances and finished with the third-best goals-against average in the league with a mark of 2.19 as well as the sixth-highest save percentage at .918. Perets also had the second-most shutouts with five. The Vees also acquired goaltender Carl Stankowski during the season who proved to be a more than capable option, winning 14 of his 18 starts.
The Warriors started slowly this year, but have picked up their play in recent weeks. There’s no better example of this than first-year forward John Evans who also started the year slowly, but has caught fire through the final two months of the year. He led the Warriors in scoring with 50 points and ended up fourth in rookie scoring in the BCHL and was named to the All-Rookie Team. His offensive counterparts on the team are a pair of players that West Kelowna acquired midseason from the Chilliwack Chiefs in two separate deals, Tyler Cristall and Carter Wilkie. The two players caught fire after joining them team and finished second and third in points.
On defence, the Warriors top performer this year was Nick Ardanaz. The 17-year-old was named to the All-Rookie Team along with Evans after he finished in the top-five in rookie defencemen scoring and led all West Kelowna blueliners with 32 points.
Johnny Derrick emerged as the starting goalie within the first month of the year and the Warriors rode him all the way until the final weekend of the regular season. Despite winning one of his first 15 appearances, it was clear the 18-year-old had talent and the team was rewarded with sticking by him when he finally started getting results as the season went on. He finished the year with a .905 save percentage and two shutouts.
The Warriors have the lowest point total of any team in the playoffs and are facing a powerhouse Vees team with four of the top 11 point producers in the league, so the Vees are the heavy favourite here. If West Kelowna were to pull off the upset, they would need players like Evans to continue their hot play from the end of the regular season into the playoffs as well as a huge performance by Derrick in net.
#2 Trail Smoke Eaters vs. #7 Prince George Spruce Kings
Head to head:
Trail went 3-0 against Prince George this season.
The Smoke Eaters possess possibly the most top-end talent in the league and that starts with BCHL MVP and leading scorer Kent Johnson. The 17-year-old phenom scored 101 points this season and led the league in almost every statistical category. He’s not alone up front as his linemate Michael Colella finished third in scoring with 68 points and the duo of Owen Ozar and Philippe Lapointe have formed a deadly combination on the team’s second line and were both named Second-Team All-Stars. Ozar finished tied for fourth in league scoring with 66 points and Lapointe had the second-highest points-per-game mark in the league at 1.53.
On defence, Diarmad DiMurro had an impressive sophomore campaign, notching 38 points to tie for fifth in the league for defenceman scoring. A huge addition was also made midseason when Trail acquired defenceman Cody Schiavon from the Surrey Eagles. Schiavon had 20 points in 30 games after joining the team and finished in the top-20 in scoring among blueliners.
Logan Terness turned out to be the breakout performer of the BCHL season in 2019-20. The 17-year-old rookie went 27-10-1 on the season and finished with the third-best save percentage in the league at .932, which was good enough for eighth best all-time in a single BCHL season. Terness was named to the All-Rookie team and also was the Bruce Allison Memorial Trophy as Rookie of the Year.
The Spruce Kings didn’t have the same season they enjoyed last year, but there are still several players from that championship team in 2018-19 that remain on this year’s squad. That starts up front with players like Nick Poisson, Corey Cunningham, Fin Williams and team captain Nolan Welsh. Poisson led the team in scoring with 47 points, while Cunningham paced them in goals with 26. They’ll look to rely on the experience from last year’s win when they start their playoff journey this year. Poisson missed the last few games of the season after being injured on Feb. 13, so the Spruce Kings will hope he’s able to make his return for the series opener.
Nick Bochen is the only regular defenceman to return from last year’s team which was widely considered the best top-six blueline in Junior A hockey. The Quinnipiac commit led the way offensively for the Spruce Kings defence, putting up 33 points in 44 games.
After starting the season playing Junior B and getting a single game in with the Merritt Centennials, Carter Woodside joined the Spruce Kings in November and quickly took over as the team’s starting goalie. Prince George also still has Jett Alexander who is the reigning OJHL (Ontario Junior Hockey League) Top Goaltender and Most Valuable Player.
Coming off the season they had and after dominating the BCHL awards and all-stars, Trail are the heavy favourites in this series. For Prince George, they will need a healthy Poisson and for some of those players with last year’s championship experience to step up if they want to shock the Smoke Eaters.
#3 Salmon Arm Silverbacks vs. #6 Victoria Grizzlies
Head to head:
The teams split the season series with Salmon Arm winning 5-3 at home in September and Victoria coming out on top 6-2 at home in January.
Up front, Salmon Arm was paced by Noah Wakeford who finished the year with 50 points in 58 games, as well as Daniel Rybarik whose 31 goals were second-most in the BCHL. Wakeford is a longtime Silverback, playing in his third season with the team, while Rybarik is in his first BCHL season after playing the last two seasons with the Calgary Mustangs of the AJHL (Alberta Junior Hockey League). William Poirier, who also was another offseason addition, proved to be a key contributor for the team, as well as midseason pickup Luke Mylymok.
The key to Salmon Arm’s success is on the blueline, specifically with 2019-20 Top Defenceman Award winner Akito Hirose. In his fourth season in Salmon Arm, Hirose had a career year and led all BCHL defencemen in scoring with 51 points, also good enough to lead all Silverbacks skaters. With 24 points on the season, first-year defenceman Hunter Sansbury also proved to be a great addition to the team, as well as recently acquired Jeremy Gervais, who had 17 points in 17 games after being acquired from the Bonnyville Pontiacs of the AJHL.
In net, Ethan Langenegger was a workhorse for the Silverbacks, playing the third-most minutes in the BCHL. The 19-year-old from Kamloops, B.C. had a record of 23-15-3 on the season and ended up with a .908 save percentage and three shutouts. Salmon Arm also added goaltender Grant Adams from the Sioux Falls Stampeders of the USHL late in the season who proved to be another solid option for the team.
Cody Monds was the breakout star for the Grizzlies this year. The Rookie of the Year finalist and member of the 2019-20 All-Rookie Team finished tied for 11th in BCHL scoring with 59 points in 57 games. Returning players Henri Schreifels and Marty Westhaver helped round out the Grizzlies offence as well as a pair of midseason acquisitions in Alex DiPaolo and Vincent Nardone, who were both acquired from the Penticton Vees.
On defence, James Davenport took over as the unquestioned number-one option, especially after Nico Somerville was dealt to Penticton. Davenport led all Grizzlies blueliners in scoring and finished sixth on the team among all skaters with 28 points in 54 games.
The Grizzlies played most of the year without their starting goalie as Liam Souliere was out with injury and didn’t play his first game until Jan. 4. It was no coincidence that Victoria started getting better results when he came back as he ended the season with a 9-6-0 record and a .917 save percentage. His goaltending partner Blake Wood earned the backup job in Souliere’s absence and would be relied upon to step up in case of an injury.
Despite the gap in points, this matchup could be closer than it appears on paper. Salmon Arm started the season hot and cooled off somewhat midseason before turning things back up to close the year. Meanwhile, Victoria was one of the more surprising teams down the stretch, stringing together wins after the return of Souliere. This series should come down to goaltending. If Langenegger is as dominant as he was early in the season, the ‘Backs should prevail, but if Souliere keeps up his late-season form, he could swing the series in the Grizzlies favour.
#4 Wenatchee Wild vs. #5 Vernon Vipers
Head to head:
Vernon won the season series 4-2 with one of their wins coming in a shootout.
The Wild boast one of the most balanced attacks in the BCHL this year with Nick Cafarelli, Brett Chorske, Matt Dorsey, Brian Adams and Tyler Young all within three points of each other for the team lead. Wenatchee’s offence got a huge boost when they added Sam Morton who started the season playing his sophomore year at Union College. The 20-year-old last played for the Wild in 2017-18 during their championship season and produced 31 points in 26 games after his return, posting 1.19 points-per-game, the sixth best mark in the league.
First-year BCHLer Drew Bavaro led the way on the back end for the Wild this year, putting up 33 points in 51 games to lead all Wenatchee defencemen. Trevor Griebel and Tanner Main also had productive years, while midseason addition Noah Lugli proved to be a great fit on the team’s blueline.
In the crease, Daniel Chenard has been the undoubted starter since day one. The BCHL veteran finished with a record of 21-16-3 and two shutouts in his first season in Wenatchee after coming over form the Chilliwack Chiefs in the offseason.
Vipers forward Matt Kowalski was the standout performer for the team this year, finishing tied for seventh in league scoring with 61 points in 58 games. His 26 goals were also tied for seventh in the BCHL. Team captain Connor Marritt also had a productive season, tying for second on the team with 47 points, while midseason pickup Dawson Holt also finished with 47 and led the team in points-per-game with a mark of 1.15 per contest after coming over from the Regina Pats of the WHL.
A veteran of 184 regular-season games, Vipers defenceman Landon Fuller had by far his best season offensively, more than tripling his career goal total and nearly doubling his career points total. 2020 NHL Draft prospect Trey Taylor was also a standout for Vernon along with 20-year-old Jackson Caller.
The Vipers went through a few goalies during the 2019-20 season, but ended up sticking with 2000-born Reilly Herbst, which proved to be the best decision. Herbst finished the year with a record of 20-10-2 with a .901 save percentage, a 2.91 goals-against average and one shutout.
This one is as close as it gets on paper. The teams finished one point apart in the standings, giving the Wild home-ice advantage. That could be the key to the series as Wenatchee has been a tough place for opponents to play since they came into the league. Another key factor will be how the team’s top-end talent produces. If Morton, Dorsey and company get hot for the Wild, then Vernon could be in trouble. Same can be said for Wenatchee if Kowalski, Holt and their other offensive players get going.