Mercifully, the 52 game grind of the KIJHL season has come to an end. Now we sit at the start of a new season. One that comes at us heavily, and is equally as entertaining as it is unforgiving. It’s the playoffs, when all bets are off and anything goes. #4 can beat #1 just as easily as #1 can beat #4. That’s the curse of parity across a 20 team league. Nothing comes easy, you have to fight for every inch, and if you asked any player or coach involved in playoff hockey they’d tell you they wouldn’t have it any other way.
For the second season in a row, the Summerland Steam finished second in the Okanagan Division, and will hold home ice through the first round. For the second year in a row, the Steam are a good hockey team. This season though, I’d argue they border on being a great hockey team. When they’re on they’re a great team, and it comes from all 20 players dressed each and every night buying in to the systems that Head Coach John Depourcq and his staff have put in place. All twelve forwards, six defenseman, and two goaltenders dressed each night have a job to do, and they set out to get it done each and every time they take the ice. They put up a franchise record 34 wins in the KIJHL regular season, including six of a possible eight victories over their first round opponent, the Kelowna Chiefs.
The playoffs are a much different story, however.
Summerland finished 19 points clear of the third place Kelowna Chiefs in the regular season, but when the puck drops on Game 1 of the Okanagan Division Semi-Final between the two teams on Tuesday night in Summerland, all bets are off.
When you look at the numbers, posted below, you may think that Summerland has an advantage based on the scores in the season series. Take my word for it: The 2-1 and 3-2 scores are likely what you’re going to see in this playoff series. Expect nothing else but a tight checking, physical, borderline mean series between two teams who are less than fond of one another. That’s how it was in the Okanagan Division Semi-Final last year, and that’s likely how it’s going to be again this year. Have a look at these numbers and then we’ll move on:
— Tim Hogg (@Steam_Voice) February 18, 2016
Last season, the Steam and the Chiefs played a fairly even regular season series, with the Steam edging the Chiefs by a 5-3 margin in 8 games. That led to one of the most “off the hinges” playoff series I’ve ever witnessed. We saw a lot of one goal games, a 10-4 game that would knock Summerland’s Jack Mills out with a broken orbital bone, and a 7-6 Double OT win for Summerland in Game 5 that saw them come back from down 5-1 late in the 2nd period to win. Here’s the highlights from that crazy Game 5:
The Steam would take a 3-2 series lead to Kelowna for Game 6, where the Chiefs would force a Game 7 courtesy of their top line of Braeden Cyra, Ethan Rusnack and Nick Josephs. In that Game 7, Jack Mills would return with a full cage and score both goals for Summerland, leading them to a 2-1 Game 7 win and to the second round where they were eliminated in 6 games by the Osoyoos Coyotes. Game 7 highlights:
The KIJHL playoffs are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. After playing three games in three days to end the regular season, the Steam and the Kelowna Chiefs will now have 9 days to complete what very well COULD BE a 7 game series. It was a 7-game thriller last season, and I’ll expect it to be the same in the 2016 playoffs.
Both teams are vastly different than a season ago at this time. The Steam, led by Jack Mills, Paulsen Lautard, and the Yukon Line march into the playoffs on a 3 game winning streak. They’ve gone 13-4-0-1 in the calendar year of 2016 thus far, and have found their identity as a good defensive hockey team who can create chances in several different ways in the offensive zone. Their defense corps, led by Adam Jones, Calvin Hadley, and puck mover Keenan Scott do good work to clear the D-zone on the first attempt, and use their legs when they find the space. One hole they’ll look to fill is that of Lathan McKinney, who’s been lost likely for the rest of the season due to emergency abdominal surgery a couple of weeks ago.
Summerland does good work to move as a 5 man unit. “5 up, 5 down” as we like to say on the broadcast, and are a lot to handle when they’re at their best. If they stay disciplined, and “play our game” as Coach Depourcq states almost every time we interview him, Summerland has a quality chance to be successful.
On the other side, the Kelowna Chiefs have done a lot of searching to find their identity over the past several months. Speaking with one coach in the division who will remain un-named, he said he thought Kelowna was “better now than at any other point in the season, and will be very difficult to play against in the playoffs.”
That’s a big compliment from an opposing coach, and something that the Chiefs should be proud of heading into the playoffs. The Chiefs are 7-11 in 18 games since the calendar flipped to 2016, and had a mid-season change in their leadership group that likely took a little getting used to.
Their on-ice leader for the majority of the season, Josh Baird was named the new Captain of the Chiefs when the Kelowna squad traded Captain Ryan Lawson to the Victoria Cougars. Baird, a player that might be the most versatile in the KIJHL, leads the Chiefs in points and ice time on most nights. He can play forward or defense, and spends time on ice in all special teams situations. Along with the Dale brothers, Josh Kobelka and Jonathan Lee, Baird be hungry to lead his team to success over a Summerland team they’ve had trouble with this season.
Kelowna does good work to get in on the forecheck and make life difficult for opposing defensemen. They’re physical, skilled, and do great work to draw penalties and capitalize with the man advantage. If the Chiefs are healthy, which they haven’t been as of late, they’re a much better hockey team than their 24-23-2-2-1 record would suggest.
Hockey is a game of emotion and I think whoever controls their emotions the best will win this series. I think the ‘X-Factor’ in the series will come down to goaltending. Kelowna employs a 3-man system in their crease with Cody Murray, Josh Tetlichi and Brady Lenardon sharing the duties. Murray, acquired at the January 10th trading deadline, was brought in to form a tandem with Tetlichi after Brady Lenardon was temporarily unavailable. Lenardon was summoned to do backup duty for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets after an injury to Rockets starter Jackson Whistle forced regular backup Michael Herringer into the starter’s role.
Lenardon has now returned to the Chiefs, and Head Coach Jason Tansem will have three goaltenders to choose from in the playoffs. You can see how all three faired against the Summerland Steam in the graphic above.
For Summerland, a young man named Matt will be between the pipes, and will be their ‘X-Factor’ as well. Matt Kostiw and Matt Huber have formed a great tandem since Kostiw joined the Steam on January 10th. He is Huber’s third goaltending partner this season after Austin Wells started the season, and Jake Mullen joined the team for 2 months in October. Mullen was then traded to Campbell River for Kostiw on January 10, and Kostiw has been very good since joining Summerland. He only played against Kelowna once, allowing 2 goals against on 24 shots in a victory.
Playoffs are fun, and we’re about to get down to business. Puck drop goes for Game 1 of the Okanagan Division Semi-Final on Tuesday night at 7:30. Mike and I will be live for pre-game at 7:15 with audio from both coaches and a highlight package from last year’s playoffs as well. Game 2 will go Thursday, February 25th at 7:30 at the Summerland Arena.
LET’S. PLAY. HOCKEY.