Panthers (fourth) vs. Cougars (first)
Last year, the Victoria Cougars came as close as you could to winning the Cyclone Taylor Cup provincial championship, when they lost the final in overtime.
At the same time, the Cougars also rectified their calamitous collapse from the 2011 final to the Peninsula Panthers. So if 2012 was a redemption season, what’s 2013?
Judging by the team’s robotic march through the 48-game VIJHL season, in which it lost just once in regulation and twice in extra time, it’s the next level of everything.
The power play is lights out. The energy line and team’s forecheck, when its turned on, is a blazing blitz of skill, speed and grinding hard work. And they have Evan Roch in net (see below).
It’s the third straight year the Cougars and Panthers will meet in the playoffs and this time the youthful Panthers are the heavy underdogs.
Because in 2013, there’s the Cougars and everyone else.
Wolves (third) vs. Braves (second)
The Westshore Wolves might have the best chance to stage an upset in all of the first round VIJHL playoffs series, not that they will admit it.
The third-seed Wolves face the second-seed Saanich Braves in the opening round and even though the Braves finished second in the league, the Wolves managed to win the last four regular season meetings.
“I wouldn’t hold much to that. The Braves had a bunch of injuries,” said Wolves coach Rob Doyle. “We’ll have to play our best to have a chance to beat them.”
Doyle started the year as assistant to head coach Vic Gervais and took over part way through the season. Even with a 28 wins and 19 losses, it’ll be for naught if the Wolves don’t win a playoff round.
“We’ve had a good year, but you can’t be satisfied with it,” Doyle said.
“With (expansion) Nanaimo it’s the same thing. They had a fantastic year and it’s great for the league. But the goal should be to win a championship every season and we’re no different than any other team.
The key to success for the Wolves is simple. “Discipline. (The Braves) have an unbelievable power play, one of the best top lines in junior B. When you self destruct, it will kill you, and it has all year for us.”
“(The Wolves) have our number right now,” said Braves captain Ty Jones. “And they have good goaltending with (former Brave) Matt Chester.”
But if there’s one thing the Wolves and league know, it’s that the Braves have another gear.
“We’ve been there before. Last year we were so close (to making the final),” Jones said.
As Tylor Branzsen tapped in the Kerry Park Islanders’ winning goal in overtime on Sunday he immediately flew over the Campbell River Storm goalie doing a mini Bobby Orr-impression. Branzsen’s goal gave the Islanders the 3-2 win at the Wild Card Game at Bear Mountain Arena and put the Islanders into the first round of the VIJHL playoffs. The Islanders, fifth in the south, challenged and won the Storm’s fourth place spot in the north, and will face the Nanaimo Buccaneers in the opening series.
Awards come as a surprise for some
Following the Wild Card Game was the VIJHL awards on Sunday.
The Cougars led the way with the Andy Hebenton Trophy as regular season champs and Cougars captain Brody Coulter taking home the Jamie Benn Trophy as MVP and Doug Morton Trophy as the top scorer with 118 points.
But the big surprise was the Braves taking two of the bigger individual trophies.
Many from the Cougars camp felt last year’s winner, Roch, was snubbed as Tanner McGaw took the Ray’s Sports Centre trophy as the top goalie, which came with overwhelming support in the voting, done by VIJHL coaches. While McGaw may have known he had a chance to a least pick up a few votes, Garrett Kemmler was shocked to win the Jack Kingston Trophy winner as the top defenceman.
“It’s a pretty big honour to know you’ve been voted on by the rest of the league,” McGaw said. The 20-year-old is in his final season with the Braves, a career which began as a midget call up four years ago. He played for the Grizzlies two years ago but didn’t stick perhaps a victim of the Grizzlies unstable ownership at the time.
For Kemmler, the award is certainly a boost but his confidence is good as it is, he said.
“It’s a surprise and I’m honoured but the end goal doesn’t change, we want to win a title.”
Kemmler said he’s benefited from playing along side Chad Roorda and Jordan Groenhyde, the two defencemen he’s partnered with most this season.
Kemmler was also one of the many Braves who missed games due to injury.
“I also played through a couple of injuries which makes this award even sweeter.”
With McGaw being named the top goalie, the deduced consensus is that the Cougars’ play in front of Roch had a lot to do with his record-setting success this season. That may be so, but he also has the best goaltending stats in the league which, once upon a time, would have automatically netted him the top goalie award.
Roch won 29 of 30 starts this year and smashed his stats line from 2011-12, which won him that year’s Ray’s Sportscentre Award as the VIJHL top goaltender.
Not only did Roch whittle his 2.47 goals against average in 16 games from last year down to a 1.79 GAA in 30 games played, it also set the VIJHL all time record. It breaks the previous record of 1.90 GAA set by Davis Parley of the Campbell River Storm.
The Cougars’ team website also reports Roch as the only goalie to post a sub-1.80 GAA in the 38 year combined history of the VIJHL and South-VIJHL.