The Victoria Cougars have a storied history in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League, but all that success goes out the window come playoff time.
Cougars head coach Suneil Karod, whose team missed winning the regular season title for the first time in eight years but has won four of the last seven playoff crowns, knows this well. And he knows every team comes looking to knock them off in the post-season.
This time around it’s the Westshore Wolves who stand ready to challenge the Cougars for the right to advance to the South Division final in the VIJHL playoffs.
The teams open their best-of-seven series at The Q Centre in Colwood on Wednesday (Feb. 21, 7 p.m. start) then head to Esquimalt for game 2 on Thursday night.
Karod said a fast start is crucial.
“We’ve preached all year about having a good start; when we get on teams early we have a better result,” he said. “Especially against those guys, they play a good shutdown game.”
The Cougars and Wolves met in the opening round last year, a “tought-fought series” won 4-2 by the Cougars. “They’re always a tough team to play against,” Karod said.
This year third-place Victoria will have their hands full trying to contain league scoring champion Cameron Coutre (66 points in 43 games), teammate Brandon Tutte (58 in 40 games) and the rest of the Wolves. This is a team that won their final six games of the season to finish second in the South, a point ahead of Victoria.
“There’s a reason he’s the top forward in the league,” Karod said of Coutre, who turns 20 in April. “He’s a junior A player playing in a junior B league. He does have the capability of changing a game by himself.”
Add in offensive defenceman Tomba Huddlestan (49 pts.) and Trevor Bottomley (35 pts.) and it’ll make for a potentially busy time for the Cougars defence and number 1 goaltender Patrick Osterman, who Karod called “our best player all season.”
Victoria’s defence, led by 20 year old Shane Kime, have stepped up of late and come together as a unit, Karod said.
Offensively, the coach is looking for the continued solid play of 19-year-old forward Jaden McNulty, who scored a natural hat trick in the Cougars season finale, a 7-2 win over Comox Valley last Saturday.
“We’ve been leaning on him lately,” Karod said. “He’s kind of taken the reins in the past two or three weeks, pitching in physically and offensively. That takes some of the pressure off (top scorers Kyle) Wade and (Darwin) Lakoduk.”
Marco Albinati, who topped the Cougars with 21 goals this season, has also been a steady presence in the attacking zone, he added.
Games 3 and 4 go Saturday at The Q Centre (7 p.m.) and Sunday back at Archie Browning Sports Centre (3:30 p.m).