The first round Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League (VIJHL) playoff series between the Saanich Braves and the Westshore Wolves might just go down in history as one of the Braves’ most memorable VIJHL playoff series ever.
The Wolves ended the series Friday night (Feb. 27) by taking a 5-4 double overtime win in Game 6 and clinching the series four games to two, but not before fans were treated to some of the most exciting and nerve-wracking hockey to be seen for sometime.
The last four games in the series all went to overtime, with two of them going into double overtime. In all of those games, the team trailing at some point in the game was the team that came back to win. This was the case in Game 3 on Sunday (Feb. 22) when the Wolves erased a 2-1 deficit to win 3-2 in double overtime, in Game 4 Monday (Feb. 23) when the Braves dramatically came back from 4-0 and 5-1 deficits to tie it up with 2.5 seconds to play and then win 6-5 in overtime and, again in Game 5 Wednesday (Feb. 25), when it was the Wolves turn to score a tying goal in the final minute and then win 4-3 in overtime.
Things were no different Friday, as the Braves held 3-1 and 4-2 leads, only to see the Wolves battle back with two third period goals to tie it up and send it to overtime and then double-overtime, where with 5:14 to play, a harmless looking wrist shot from the point by the Wolves’ James Severs somehow found its way through a crowd and over the shoulder of Braves goaltender Riley Mathieson to end the Braves’ season in heart-breaking fashion.
Like they did in all four of their losses in this series, the Braves looked to be in control of Game 6 and on their way to forcing a Game 7, having scored three straight second period goals after Clay Carson had opened the scoring for the Wolves with a powerplay goal in the first. Hunter Atchison, on the powerplay, Nick Kean and Evan Horvath, shorthanded, put the Braves up 3-1 at the 16:31 mark of the period, but a powerplay goal from Severs cut the gap to 3-2 at the second break.
In the third, Saanich captain Dayne Ellison restored the Braves two goal lead with a goal at 1:57, but goals from Quentin McShane and Corey Peterson, the latter at the 10:52 mark tied the score and sent things to overtime.
Both the first and second overtimes were some of the most exciting hockey to be played at Pearkes Arena in sometime.
Saanich goaltender Mathieson and Westshore goaltender Chris Smith were both called upon to make some huge, pressure filled saves, most notably Smith who came up with some of his best saves of the game in the second overtime.
After some incredible chances by both sides, the winning goal was almost a bit anti-climatic. The Braves were whistled for icing and on the faceoff, Clay Carson won the puck back to Severs at the point and his shot hit the net to give the Wolves the win.
Naturally disappointed with the loss, Braves head coach Brad Cook had nothing but the utmost respect for the effort his team put out.
“If you are going to lose a playoff series, what better way to go out than the way we did,” Cook said. “Four games that went to overtime? The incredible comeback in Game 4? Our guys were warriors and I am really pround of how they played, especially the core group that was here last year…
We’ve come so far as a group since then and these guys should all be proud of that.”
And so they should.
Fans may recall that over the span of last season and the start of this season, the Braves endured a 26-game losing streak.
That ended with a win over Oceanside on Oct. 8 and since then the Braves have played some respectable hockey.
With their season finish (17-25-1-5) and they way they played against a veteran-laden Westshore team in this series, they should carry a ton of optimism into the 2015-2016 season.
“We have a core group of 20 players who are eligible to come back and play for us next season,” said Cook.
“Obviously we hope that some of those kids will move up to the next level, but should they all come back, the experience they’ve gained this season and last bodes extremely well for us moving forward.”
As to his needs for next season, Cook mentioned that he will be on the lookout for a top scoring forward, as well as a veteran defenceman to help provide some stablity on the back end. That search will begin in late March, as the team begins their development ice program and will continue into early June when the Braves hold their annual prospect camp.
– Christian Stewart is a Saanich Based communications professional and contributing editor for Independent Sports News.