When the Penticton Vees 2019-20 schedule was released, we noted not so much the six road games to start the season, but the nine home games to finish.
We wondered if the Vees would be close enough to make a run at the Interior Division pennant with all that home cooking stashed away for February.
But here we are, with the 29-game slate of road games complete, and the Vees cruising into the aforementioned stretch of nine home games with a 12-point lead over their nearest rival (Trail), and the celebration of a ninth straight Interior pennant now just a matter of when, not if.
The Vees, motivated by last season’s stunning first-round playoff defeat, charged out of the gate by winning all six of the road games, and tacked on five more wins to take the streak to 11 before finally losing 4-0 in Alberni in Game 12.
Penticton endured a few bumps in November and December, were challenged briefly by Salmon Arm and then by Trail, but GM/head coach Fred Harbinson made some shrewd personnel moves, the team overcame some injury issues before running away and hiding by starting 2020 on a 10-1 run. January will almost certainly end at 11-1 with freefalling Merritt visiting again on Friday after losing 9-1 at the SOEC a week ago.
The Vees magic number is down to 10 points – any combination of Vees points gained and Trail points lost adding up to 10 – to lock down Harbinson’s 10th pennant in 13 seasons at the helm.
It of course guarantees nothing once Feb. 28 rolls around and the puck drops on the post-season. The Vees had a terrific regular season in 2018-19 but the season ended in stunning fashion when Mike Vandekamp’s Cowichan Valley Capitals beat Penticton in six games – the first time in Harbinson’s tenure his team lost in Round 1.
That’s not apt to happen this time around. The Vees will likely play a West Kelowna team hugely overmatched (on paper) in Round 1. But, more significantly, the Vees are simply far better equipped for a lengthy post-season run this time around.
Penticton has the prototype lineup with two talented scoring lines, a third line that can shut down the opposition’s top line and produce offensively, and a fourth line that provides energy, grit and speed.
The defence features three quality pairings with size, skill and speed. And what about the goaltending? Yaniv Perets and Carl Stankowski have been spectacular. As we’ve been reminded all along, this is a great league and your goaltender is going to be tested. Rarely has either member of this fine duo not emerged with flying colours.
It’s a team with a terrific blend of speed, skill and physicality, playing within a structured system that has seen the Vees allow one goal or fewer in eight of their last 14 games. They’ve scored the most goals in the league (187), surrendered the third fewest (114), and feature solid and versatile special teams.
After the remarkable 11-game start, the Vees did taper off a bit and Harbinson was quick to make some personnel adjustments. The Vees are hosting the Centennial Cup next season, but Harbinson and Co. want to take a serious run at this year’s too.
Forward Darwin Lakoduc and defencemen Nico Somerville were real nice pick-ups from a rebuilding Victoria team. Harbinson was breathing sigh of relief after getting the 20-year-old Somerville, especially when fellow rearguard Cade Webber was lost for the season due to a lower-body injury.
Three other shrewd acquisitions were Stankowski, and forwards Tyler Ho and Drew Elser.
Ho has been a revelation on that shut-down line, bringing terrific speed and a nice haul of 11 goals and 19 points in 33 games. Elser came back at the deadline after concussion issues put his career on hold for over a year and looks like the perfect fit on that energy line with Lakoduc and Jack Barnes.
The Vees have some forward depth with Liam Noble, while Harbinson has loaded the cupboard with some quality major midget and Junior-B affiliated players should the need arise. All the APs would be eligible to join the Vees full-time once their respective teams are finished for the season.
So, we go into these last nine home games with excitement and anticipation. The Vees will be challenged in these games with two against Wenatchee to end the season, and one each against Vernon, Salmon Arm, Surrey and an eagerly-awaited matchup with Coquitlam. Merritt, West Kelowna and Alberni are the other matchups.
Harbinson and his staff will be able to tinker with some things, give some players a bit of rest and work some others into the lineup. But the Vees will want to keep the foot down here. And, of course, they still have a chance to track down Coquitlam for first place overall and the Ron Boileau Memorial Trophy.
The Express are three points ahead of the Vees with three games in hand, so it will be a tough ask for Penticton. Still, that’s a game (on Feb. 14) the Vees will dearly want to win after the Express blasted a beaten-up Penticton squad 7-2 in the second game of a back-to-back midweek trip to Langley and Coquitlam in November.
Not to mention the fact former Vees captain Massimo Rizzo now plays for Coquitlam and has tallied 31 points in 31 games. It should be a juicy Valentine’s Day matchup.
The Vees aren’t lamenting the loss of Rizzo in the off-season trade that brought Alex DiPaolo to Penticton. After all, the Vees turned DiPaolo and seldom-used defenceman Colton Kitchen into Somerville. Besides, there were a lot of other circumstances that surrounded the Rizzo trade.
All’s well that ends well. Who knows, maybe the teams will see other again in April. Wouldn’t that be cool?
There’s a lot of heavy lifting to be done before that can happen for both teams. It’s a great league. Coach Harbinson will never let us – or his players - forget that.
David Crompton is a sports reporter at the Penticton Herald.