The Okanagan Divison is surely one of the toughest divisions in the KIJHL. It boasts five teams who play hard and never take a night off. Sure, the standings may be a bit stretched at the moment, but it doesn’t matter who you play on any given night, they can beat you. With roughly 15 games remaining in the KIJHL Regular season, each of Osoyoos, Summerland, Kelowna, North Okanagan, and Princeton still have their own individual battle to fight. Let’s start at the bottom.
The Princeton Posse, once thought to not be in the picture to make the playoffs, are just three points back of the fourth place North Okanagan Knights. The Knights have struggled as of late going just 2-8 in their last 10, but are trying to keep their lead and fend off Princeton for that 4th and final playoff spot.
The Kelowna Chiefs are right in the middle in the third spot. They have an 11 point cushion on the fourth place Knights, and trail the second place Summerland Steam by 10 points with Summerland holding one game in hand.
Summerland, with that 10 point lead on Kelowna, sits in second in the division, five points back of the division leading Osoyoos Coyotes. If the season were to end today, Summerland would start the KIJHL Playoffs on home ice where they hold a 13-1-1-1 record.
Things COULD change drastically at the top of the Okanagan Divison in the coming weeks, as the three teams at the top play each other a lot down the stretch. Summerland will see Kelowna and Osoyoos each four more times, while the Chiefs and Coyotes lock horns twice more. I would venture to guess that if any change occurs, it will be between the top two for the division title.
Summerland and Osoyoos have always had a heated rivalry, and those four remaining meetings will surely be tightly contested as we head down the stretch to decide who earns the right to hang the banner at the end of the season. The next of those meetings comes January 13th in Osoyoos, but Summerland will have to focus on the Kelowna Chiefs first.
Staring down the barrel of their fifth meeting of the season, the Summerland Steam and the Kelowna Chiefs have played some entertaining hockey so far this year. Both teams have hosted the other twice, with the home team winning all four contests. All but one of the four thus far, a 4-1 Summerland win on December 3rd, have been decided by just a single goal and have been (mostly) entertaining. The last one in particular, a 5-4 win for the Chiefs in Rutland on December 17, was especially entertaining from a fan standpoint.
Summerland will not be happy that they had a 2-0 lead on the road and gave up 5 unanswered goals before staging a comeback. Kelowna WILL be happy about those same facts and that they did it using no more than 12 skaters, but from a fan standpoint it was a lot of fun to be a part of.
Since that game on December 17, the Chiefs have returned to (mostly) full man-power. Brett Witala, the KIJHL leader in goals with 22, is back from injury while Brody Dale, Tyler Love, Ty Dornn, Tyson Taylor and Kolten Carpenter have all returned from suspension and/or injury.
Elliott Pickrell is the only member of the Chiefs still serving a suspension, and will serve his 5th and final game of a 5 game suspension on Friday night when the Chiefs visit the Summerland Arena.
I would expect to see Tanner Marshall, the 16 year-old standout net minder for the Chiefs, in goal again for the visitors on Friday. Marshall, a Kelowna native and selectee for the 2017 KIJHL Top Prospects Showcase on January 14th in Kelowna, has been nothing short of stellar for the Chiefs so far this season.
Being a 16 year-old rookie in the KIJHL is never easy, especially for a goaltender, but Marshall has made it look simple so far. Carrying the load for Head Coach Jason Tansem so far, Marshall has started 22 games and compiled 11 wins and a .910% save percentage.
It will be important for the Summerland Steam to create traffic in front of the Kelowna net and make sure whomever stands in it, Tanner Marshall or Brandon Gaucher, can’t easily see.
The Steam have been doing this a little more of late, and it’s been a refreshing sight. For a lot of the early part of the season, Summerland spent a lot of their time working the perimeter of the ice and creating offense from the outside. Recently, Steam forwards have done a great job going to the front of the net and creating offense from in tight off rebounds and sharp passes from below the goal line.
The newly formed line of Josh Pilon, Steven Fiust, and rookie Morey Babakaiff have led the charge in this regard, and are being rewarded for their efforts. Though Fiust hasn’t scored in 16 games, he drives this line with his puck skills and hockey smarts. He’s what hockey minds like to call ‘a heady player’, and creates offense for his linemates without much secondary effort. With 21 points (4g+17a) in his first 30 games as a member of the Steam, Fiust has fit in well on a line with longtime friend Josh Pilon. The two played together two seasons ago in Revelstoke, and have found that same chemistry this season in Summerland.
Playing most of the season with Everett Scherger on their left side, recently Head Coach John Depourcq has moved rookie forward Morey Babakaiff up to the left side of Pilon and Fiust, both balancing out his lines and rewarding Babakaiff for continued hard work and vast improvement.
Switching Scherger, a rabid pursuant of the puck, and Babakaiff allows more balance to Summerland’s lines. It allows Scherger to play with Ben Dietrich-Scammell and Braden Eliuk, helping that line in puck pursuit and creating more opportunity.
It creates a more balanced attack for the Steam and allows them to roll 4 lines all the time, which is extremely important as we head towards the playoffs and the January 10 BC Hockey trading deadline. Being comfortable with all 22 players on the roster allows the Summerland Steam to relax and see how the chips fall, rather than have the stress of going out with a goal of landing a big acquisition for the stretch drive and playoff run.
It’s all but a formality now, but with a Summerland victory and a Princeton Posse loss on Friday night the Steam will clinch their 4th straight playoff appearance.
Summerland will look to take care of that piece of business on Friday night against the Kelowna Chiefs. Puck drop goes at 7:30pm Friday night, and Joel and I will have pre-game starting at 715 with a preview and some coaches audio.