And then there were two. Breezing through their respective Conference Finals, the Nanaimo Clippers and Salmon Arm Silverbacks appear to be peaking at just the right time. The Subway Cup is once again up for grabs as the British Columbia Hockey League Finals begins Friday at the Sunwave Centre in Salmon Arm.
The Clippers finished off the Surrey Eagles in four straight, yet hotly contested games, advancing to the league final for the first time since 1980. Taking a 2-0 lead home to Frank Crane Arena paid off for the Clips when they were able to sneak by Surrey in a pair of overtime thrillers. Nanaimo, who finished second to Cowichan Valley in the Island Division during the regular season, handled Chilliwack, 3-1 in their best-of-five second round match-up, utilizing the defensive characteristics of a league-best 161 goals against to get on a roll once they handled Powell River in a seven-game marathon to open the post-season.
Conversely, the third-year ‘Backs have a high-octane offense to fall back on, leading the Interior Division in wins and points during the season, and pacing the entire BCHL with 300 goals for. The Apes swept Prince George in four straight in the first round, earned a bye in the second round and dusted Williams Lake in five games in the Interior Final. A 4-3 OT loss in Game 2 to the Timberwolves must have awoken Salmon Arm, who scored 7, 5 and then 9 goals in three straight victories to gain entry to the final for the first time in their brief history.
" We did some team-building activities during the layoff between rounds, but two weeks is awfully long to wait at this time of year," Salmon Arm General Manager Garry Davidson said. "We proved against Williams Lake that we came through OK and now we’re preparing to take on Nanaimo."
Between the clubs, they can boast seven of the top twenty playoff scorers, including veteran Tyson Mulock, who with a single point, will overtake Surrey’s Don Johnson for the league’s playoff scoring lead. Mulock ,and his 22 points, are joined among the select group by Mike Olson (15 assists, 21 points), Blair Lefebvre (11 goals, 19 points) and hot prospect Ray Sawada (15 points) for the Clippers. Salmon Arm’s Travis Zajac has 9 goals in 9 games, to go along with 8 assists, while Kris Chucko and Rick Cleaver each have 14 points in the ‘Backs 9 games.
Denis Berube, the Clippers’ starting goalie, has the best numbers of any BCHLer with more than 7 playoff appearances. In 14 games he has an impressive 11-3 record, to go alongside a 2.19 goals against average and .915 save percentage. Patrick LePage is 6-1 in 9 games, with a 2.50 GAA, .919 SP and one shutout for the Silverbacks.
Both teams were very well represented in the mid-season draft-eligible rankings by the National Hockey League’s Central Scouting Service. Zajac came in at #20 among North American skaters, with Sawada not far behind at #33. Chucko held down #61, while Nanaimo rookie winger Jordan Foote was at #119. Smooth skating Silverbacks’ defenseman Craig Switzer ranked #127th, in between two Salmon Arm grads from a year ago. Blueliner Jonathan Sigalet, now skating for Bowling Green University, was #85th among N.A. players, while Cornell University’s Mitch Carefoot came in at #127.
Rookies could have a big say in the outcome of the final, as each team is reliant upon a half dozen freshmen to make large contributions.
Aside from Cleaver, Salmon Arm gets solid, point-per-game efforts from Ben Street, Bryn Gagnon and Tyrell Mason, and too a lesser degree from Evan Barlow and Trevor Geiger. Sawada and Foote are central for Nanaimo, but Jason Garrison, Craig Gaudet, Brandan Kushniruk, Tyler Mugford and Brennen Francon are important components up front and along the blueline.
" We have a number of younger guys who have had previous success of their own with their respective midget teams and it’s been a fairly steady transition for them," Nanaimo Head Coach and GM Bill Bestwick said, lauding his fresh-faced troops.
A pivotal component to the final could be a few players looking for revenge against their former teams. Ex-Clipper Jason Miller has 11 points in 9 playoff games for Salmon Arm, following a 61-point regular season. Blueliner Chris Kestell, as well as role playing forward Brandon Laidlaw, both former ‘Backs, are likely to log serious minutes as key Clippers in the series.
Defense versus offense, is it an age-old classic playoff match-up?
" They can definitely still score," Davidson said of the Clippers. "But I’m mainly concerned with our defense and discipline. Special teams will be a key in the series – we are constantly working on our powerplay and penalty killing any chance we get."
Nanaimo, whom Bestwick insists does not play the neutral zone trap, came through a controversial opening round tilt against Powell River that featured a precedent-setting league ruling that could have cost them the series. With 1:20 remaining in the third period of Game 7, the Clippers and Kings were tied 3-3 when Powell River goalie Eric Bourbeau left his crease to cover the puck along the sideboards. The referee immediately halted play and penalized Bourbeau for delay of game, but after some discussion officials decided to award Nanaimo a penalty shot because the infraction occurred so late in regulation time. The Clippers’ subsequently scored to go on to what they believed to be a 4-3 game and series win.
It didn’t end there, however, as the Kings protested and saw their beef eventually upheld with what amounted to a mini-game, but the Clippers prevailed in overtime. The teams re-convened days later after the Kings had returned glumly to Powell River. They were forced to kill off the penalty to Bourbeau for the final 1:20 of the third period and first 40 seconds of overtime. In a swift and fair decision, the league did not find the officials to be at fault and welcomed an appeal from Nanaimo that was rendered moot after they won.
Veteran leaders took the reins as the opening round series began to swing in Nanaimo’s direction.
" We went seven games with Powell River and were facing elimination in Game 6 and our captain, Mike Olson, stepped up to score a goal forcing Game 7," Bestwick described. "Of course, that was the infamous penalty shot game – the penalty shot heard around the world! Another veteran, Tyson Mulock scored on the penalty shot that didn’t count, but in the re-make game, Olson scored a beautiful overtime goal to win the series."
Wire-to-wire leaders Salmon Arm may have the home ice advantage, but both teams are fully aware of the other side’s strengths. Nanaimo can score when they need to, while Salmon Arm defends when it has to, two reasons this new-look battle could be the best in years.