The giant killers of Canadian Junior A hockey play on, all the way to the 2016 RBC Cup.
Most junior hockey experts had predicted a team from the Okanagan competing for Canada’s National Junior A Championship, but it was the Penticton Vees, not
the West Kelowna Warriors, who many expected to see on the ice in Lloydminster.
But there were the Warriors laying claim to the Western Canada Cup championship in Estevan, Sask., booking their first trip to the RBC Cup as arguably the
most unlikely of the four regional representatives.
Their playoff run included a come-from-behind six-game win over the heavily-favoured Vees in the BCHL Interior Division final, and victories over the
Portage Terriers and Brooks Bandits – who came into the Western Canada Cup with a combined 24-2 playoff record – at the regional tournament.
As unexpected as their playoff success might have been to some, West Kelowna was certainly no slouch in the regular season; the Warriors posted a 38-17-2-1
record to sit third in the B.C. Hockey League, albeit 22 points behind front-running Penticton, and they closed the season by winning 12 of their last 13
West Kelowna posted the league’s third-best offence, scoring 242 goals, its 180 goals against were sixth-best, and its power play (24.6%, third) and
penalty kill (83.2%, fourth) were top-five finishers.
Individually, Jonathan Desbiens (44-39—83, sixth), Kylar Hope (28-46—74, 10th) and Liam Blackburn (27-47—74, 11th) made the Warriors one of just two teams
with three players in the top 11 of BCHL scoring, and Matthew Greenfield won 13 of his 18 starts with a 2.09 goals-against average after joining West
Kelowna from the U.S. Hockey League in mid-December.
So, again, the Warriors were pretty darn good in the regular season.
But they opened the playoffs with a 6-5 overtime loss to the Salmon Arm Silverbacks, and needed an extra-time winner from Hope in Game 2 to avoid
back-to-back home-ice losses and an 0-2 hole.
They eventually vanquished the Silverbacks in six, setting up a showdown with the Vees.
Penticton was the class of the BCHL from start to finish, losing just seven of 58 games with a line-up that boasted two likely NHL first-round draft picks
in Tyson Jost and Dante Fabbro.
And when the Warriors dropped the first two games on the road, it appeared like another postseason loss to Penticton, their third in four years, was on the
But Blackburn got the winner midway through the third period of a 2-1 win in Game 3, and a 28-save shutout from Greenfield in Game 4 even the series as it
headed back down Highway 97 to Penticton. It marked the first time all season the Vees had dropped back-to-back games.
Greenfield did it again in Game 5, making 32 saves, and goals from Nick Rutigliano and Rylan Yaremko in the final 13:22 gave West Kelowna a 2-1 victory and
a 3-2 series lead heading home.
Game 6 will go down as likely the wildest postseason game played on the Road to the RBC Cup; an empty-net goal from Garrett Forster with 4:29 to go gave
the Warriors a seemingly-insurmountable 4-1 lead, but Penticton scored twice in a span of 58 seconds to set up a wild finish.
Greenfield made a sprawling glove stop with less than a minute to go to keep it a one-goal game, and when the potential game-tying marker was waved off due
to a high stick with under 10 seconds left, West Kelowna was off to the BCHL semifinals with a wild 4-3 victory.
The Warriors survived the unorthodox semifinal round-robin, finishing with a 3-3 record and needing an OT winner from Hope in a do-or-die showdown with the
Nanaimo Clippers to advance to the BCHL final.
West Kelowna quickly took a 2-0 lead over the Chilliwack Chiefs with a pair of road wins to open the series and never looked back, eliminating the Chiefs
in six games to win its first-ever BCHL championship.
After splitting their first two games in Estevan, blanking the host Bruins 3-0 before dropping a 4-2 decision to Brooks, the Warriors edged Portage in
overtime, handing the defending RBC Cup champions just their second loss of the postseason on Desbiens’ winner in the extra period.
After Brooks hammered the Terriers 9-3, West Kelowna closed out its preliminary round with a 4-1 win over the Melfort Mustangs, booking their spot in the
championship game opposite the Bandits.
Brooks brought a perfect 4-0 record into the final and had not lost a game in regulation time since a regular-season setback on Feb. 27, but it was all
Warriors as soon as the puck dropped.
Brian Basilico, Rutigliano and Forster made it 3-0 after one period, Keelan Williams finished with 32 saves in the West Kelowna goal and it was a 6-0
final, sending the Warriors to the RBC Cup as West Region champions.
The Warriors are the third British Columbia team to win the Western Canada Cup in its four-year history, but both of the previous two – Surrey in 2013 and
Penticton in 2015 – lost in overtime in the RBC Cup semifinals.
HOW THEY GOT TO LLOYDMINSTER
British Columbia Hockey League
Preliminary round: defeated Salmon Arm 4-2 (5-6 OT, 2-1 OT, 4-1, 1-2, 6-3, 4-2)
Quarter-final: defeated Penticton 4-2 (1-5, 2-3 OT, 2-1, 3-0, 2-1, 4-3)
Semifinal: 3-3 – second in double round robin (defeated Chilliwack 5-1, lost to Nanaimo 4-1, lost to Chilliwack 4-3 OT, defeated Nanaimo 5-2, lost to
Chilliwack 4-3, defeated Nanaimo 3-2 OT)
BCHL championship: defeated Chilliwack 4-2 (2-0, 6-3, 1-3, 3-2 OT, 2-5, 4-2)
Western Canada Cup
Round robin: second place – 3-1 (defeated Estevan 3-0, lost to Brooks 4-2, defeated Portage 3-2 OT, defeated Melfort 4-1)
Championship: defeated Brooks 6-0
Record: 38-17-2-1 (3rd in BCHL)
Goals for: 242 (3rd in BCHL)
Goals against: 180 (5th in BCHL)
Power play: 67 for 262 (24.6% - 3rd in BCHL)
Penalty killing: 242 of 291 (83.2% - 4th in BCHL)
Longest winning streak: 7 (Jan. 26-Feb. 6)
Top 3 scorers:
Jonathan Desbiens (44G 39A 83P – 6th in BCHL)
Kylar Hope (28G 46A 74P – 10th in BCHL)
Liam Blackburn (27G 47A 74P – 11th in BCHL)
Goals for: 92
Goals against: 67
Power play: 25 for 111 (22.5%)
Penalty killing: 116 of 131 (88.6%)
Top 3 scorers:
Kylar Hope (17G 10A 27P)
Jonathan Desbiens (17G 7A 24P)
Liam Blackburn (7G 16A 23P)
NATIONAL JUNIOR A CHAMPIONSHIP HISTORY
CJHL NATIONAL RANKINGS – WEEK-BY-WEEK
Sept. 1 (preseason) – not ranked
Sept. 29 – not ranked
Oct. 5 – not ranked
Oct. 12 – not ranked
Oct. 19 – not ranked
Oct. 26 – not ranked
Nov. 9 – not ranked
Nov. 16 – not ranked
Nov. 23 – not ranked
Nov. 30 – not ranked
Dec. 7 – not ranked
Dec. 14 – not ranked
Dec. 21 – not ranked
Jan. 4 – not ranked
Jan. 11 – not ranked
Jan. 18 – not ranked
Jan. 25 – not ranked
Feb. 1 – not ranked
Feb. 8 – not ranked
Feb. 15 – not ranked
Feb. 22 – not ranked
Feb. 29 – honourable mention
March 7 – honourable mention
Bryan Basilico – Lake Superior State University (2016-17)
Liam Blackburn – University of New Hampshire (2016-17)
Kristian Blumenschein – Colorado College (2016-17)
Jonathan Desbiens – Bentley University (2016-17)
Quin Foreman – Dartmouth College (2017-18)
Kylar Hope – University of Alaska Fairbanks (2016-17)
Kyle Marino – University of Alaska Fairbanks (2016-17)
Brett Mennear – Bentley University (2017-18)
Nick Rutigliano – Bentley University (2017-18)
Connor Sodergren – Army West Point (2017-18)
Rylan Yaremko – Northern Michigan University (2017-18)