Time for teams to hit the giant red reset button and get down to what really matters. The playoffs.
For those not familiar, you’re in for a ride. KIJHL Playoffs are the most terrifying, gruelling, humbling games that are played on our calendar. Teams are required to complete up to 7 of the fastest, most physical games of the year in 9 nights. And the teams that go on could have to do that up to 4 times. At max, it’s 28 games in 36 days, and at absolute minimum it’s 16 in the same span. Both are a lot, but both are a lot of fun, and that’s what we’re in for in the coming months.
If the playoffs started in December, the feeling around the first round playoff series between the Summerland Steam and the Kelowna Chiefs would be a lot different than it is right now. The Chiefs were sputtering, struggling to keep the puck out of their net and playing in tight games that they probably deserved better results in.
Summerland, meanwhile,was thriving and leading the Okanagan Division thanks to both strong play and strength of schedule. The latter was looked at as something those around the organization had a feeling would catch up to them later on in the season, and it did in the way of a poor January that saw Summerland lose 7 of 8.
Since January 1st the script has been flipped for these two bitter rivals, who will do battle in the first round of the KIJHL Playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons. The Chiefs found stability in goal from 20-year old Joe McLeod, and began to fill the net using their speed, and their power play to create chances for themselves.
They’ve got offensive talent abound, led by 20-year old captain Brett Witala and 18-year old Brody Dale. Witala, who led the conference in points by nearly 30, came up just a couple of points shy of Creston’s Liam Plunkett in the KIJHL scoring race, while Dale’s collected a cool 39 points in 14 games since his return after the Christmas break from the NOJHL.
Combine the two with Zach Erhardt, Juanre Naude, Devon Sutton and Aidan Bar-Lev-Wise, who all average at least a point per game, and it gives you undoubtedly the most talented ‘Top 6’ in the KIJHL.
They’ve used this ‘Top 6’, along with 20-year old defenseman Cole Williams, who also averages a point per game, to form a somewhat balanced attack that relies on beating teams in transition and using their speed to create scoring chances and penalties.
They’ve done remarkably well with this model since they acquired the talent that’s gotten them where they are starting in early December. They had Aidan Bar-Lev-Wise return, added Zach Erhardt from the AJHL, and had Dale return from Junior A to bolster a lineup that already included Sutton, Naude, and Brett Witala.
Since the arrival of their full compliment on January 1st, the Chiefs have outscored their opponents by a wild 90-47 margin while going 12-2-0-1 during that span. Their only regulation losses included a pair of 6-3 defeats, one to the Osoyoos Coyotes and one to the 100 Mile House Wranglers.
Summerland, meanwhile, has now found trouble keeping the puck out of their net, particularly against their two most heated rivals, the Chiefs and the Osoyoos Coyotes. They struggled out of the gate after the break, winning just four of their first 11 post-Christmas games, including a string of 7 losses in 8 tries that allowed the Chiefs to climb back into the race for second place. Three bad losses to the Chiefs, 11-4, 9-0, and 9-4 are the reason the Chiefs will have home ice advantage, and be favoured, in this series.
The Steam seemed to take a big step forward last weekend in their final regular season game, as they went to the Revelstoke Forum and spanked the conference winning Grizzlies by a 6-2 score. It was a game that showed what Summerland was made of. They were fast, they were physical, and they bordered on just that little bit of mean that will get them somewhere in a series that will require it.
In the season series against the Chiefs Summerland went 3-3-0-2. Those three wins came early, in the first three meetings of the year, which were followed by two overtime losses in a row and three blowouts in a row to finish off the season series.
Part of it will be stepping up and changing their game to combat Kelowna’s strengths, which is of course their speed through the middle of the ice. Another key for the Steam will be to keep the Kelowna power play, which seems like it’s operating at about 70% efficiency since Christmas, off the ice.
Finally, the Steam will need their veterans to step up. Matt Huber will have to be strong in goal, Sam Jones and Brogan Lautard will have to lead by example for a young defense core that’s been better than expected all season long, and forwards Scott Robinson and Blake Holowaty will have to use their good hockey sense and strong offensive ability to help direct traffic and shots to the front of the net of Kelowna’s Joe McLeod. That’s the only way to beat a goaltender who’s gone 11-1 since his arrival in early January, and Summerland will have to figure that out quickly if they want a chance to be in this series.
If the team that showed up on home ice Friday against these same Kelowna Chiefs shows up, Summerland’s in trouble. If the team that showed up Saturday in Revelstoke makes an appearance though, we could be in for one hell of a hockey series. For the fourth year in a row, it’s the Steam and the Chiefs in Round 1 of the KIJHL Playoffs, and Summerland hopes for the fourth year in a row the series results in a Steam victory and a meeting with either the Osoyoos Coyotes or the Princeton Posse in Round 2.
Games 1&2 go Friday and Saturday from Rutland Arena, starting at 7PM.
Games 3&4 will be played Monday and Tuesday at the Summerland Arena, both 7:30pm start times. Joel and I will have pre-game for both of those contests starting at 7:15pm on Playfullscreen.com