The Penticton Vees first-round playoff opponent, as well as their chances of finishing in first place overall, became clearer after a trio of Tuesday night games in the B.C. Hockey League.
The Merritt Centennials were mathematically eliminated from post-season contention and slim chance of facing Penticton after a 9-2 home-ice loss to the Coquitlam Express. The result put the West Kelowna Warriors in the final playoff spot.
The Victoria Grizzlies also scratched their name off the list of potential Vees first-round opponents by edging the Langley Rivermen 4-3.
“It basically means it will be either Prince George (Spruce Kings) or West Kelowna,” said Vees GM/head coach Fred Harbinson.
Prince George lost 4-1 in Chilliwack on Tuesday and remain three points ahead of West Kelowna in the battle to avoid playing the Interior Division pennant-winning Vees in the first round.
Both teams have five games left, including the Warriors (14-30-6-3) visiting Salmon Arm on Wednesday night and Prince George (17-30-2-4) visiting Surrey on Thursday morning. The Spruce Kings would likely win any tiebreaker with West Kelowna.
The Vees beat the much-improved Warriors 5-4 in overtime Sunday to complete a six-game sweep of the season series and extend their overall winning streak to 10 games. The Vees split their two games with Prince George, with the road team prevailing on both occasions.
“(West Kelowna) has played well since Christmas,” said Harbinson. “They’ve made a lot of changes, they work hard and are committed to playing a certain way.”
Harbinson is more focused on the Vees final four regular season games – all of which are at home.
The Vees have the much-anticipated showdown with Coquitlam on Friday at 7 p.m. and a visit from Alberni Valley Bulldogs Saturday at 6 p.m., before wrapping up the regular season Feb. 21-22 with two home games against Wenatchee.
The Vees are now four points behind Coquitlam, with the Express still holding one game in hand. The Vees will need to win on Friday – preferably by at least five goals - and get some outside help to have a chance to claim the Ron Boileau Memorial Trophy.
“We’ve got four games left and we want to play well in all four,” said Harbinson. “We’ll finish where we finish. We’re just focused on our own game.”
It hasn’t been an overly pleasant week health-wise for the Vees, as an illness has kept several players off the ice, including goaltender Carl Stankowski. Yaniv Perets has a minor lower-body injury that has kept him off the ice as well.
“Just a precautionary thing with Yanny … if it was the playoffs he’d be fine to go,” said Harbinson, who was also feeling the effects of the bug.
The coach said he is hopeful that Stankowski – who did not suit up even as the backup for Sunday’s game – will be able to practice today and play on Friday, and quite possibly Saturday.
The Vees got high-scoring forward Jackson Niedermayer back from injury on Sunday and he responded with two goals. Unfortunately for the Vees, they lost forward Jack Barnes to an upper-body injury against the Warriors.
“We felt it was an elbow to the head where the player left his feet, but the officials didn’t see it that way,” said Harbinson, noting there was no penalty called on the play.