After three wins in the last week, the Creston Valley Thunder Cats are just two wins away from clinching second place in the Eddie Mountain Division of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League.
The Creston team currently has 62 points, putting it six ahead of the Fernie Ghostriders and eight ahead of the Columbia Valley Rockies, but well shy of the Kimberley Dynamiters’ 72 points.
Creston’s Feb. 3 win took place on the road, with a 3-2 defeat of the Dynamiters, the last match between the two in the regular season, but a good test for the playoffs.
“Obviously, they’re a team that if you expect to advance too far in the playoffs, your going to have to go through them,” said head coach Jeff Dubois.
The game started out slow, with one Kimberley goal in the first period, but Creston took over the game in the second period with goals by Logan Styler, Alec Wilkinson and Nicholas Kovacik. The Dynamiters scored once more in the third period.
“They play in a pretty tough rink to win games in as a road team,” said Dubois. “And vice-versa — we’ve got three wins against them on home ice.”
The game was a true team effort, he said, with three separate lines scoring the three goals, but a lot of credit goes to goalie Jason Mailhoit.
“We only allowed 22 shots on Wednesday, which is right in that range that you’re hoping to hold a team like Kimberley to on home ice.”
With several players sidelined by injuries and the flu on Friday, the first period against the Golden Rockets was a tight one, Dubois said, with a goal by Brett Witala tying the score 1-1 late in the first period. Golden didn’t score again, with Liam Plunkett and McConnell Kimmett scoring in the second, and Carson Cartwright (two) and Witala scoring in the third.
Cartwright earned four points in that game, and Wilkinson, Witala and Plunkett added to the success.
“All of those guys chipped in, and we were pretty solid on the defensive side of the puck,” said Dubois.
Goalie Dawson Fennell also did his part.
“He just managed to do everything he needed to do,” said Dubois. “Especially early in game when it was tight, he gave us every chance to win.”
Creston increased its four-point lead to six with Saturday’s 3-1 win over the Fernie Ghostriders. There were no goals in the first period, but Styler and Ian Desrosiers scored in the second, with Fernie’s only goal scored in the middle of the period. Cartwright scored Creston’s third goal on an empty net with 49 second remaining in the third.
With only nine forwards and four defencemen on Creston’s bench in the third period, tension was high.
“Some of those guys were under the weather, and ended up having to battle,” Dubois said.
The Thunder Cats start this weekend by hosting the Golden Rockets, at the bottom of the division with 12 points. As always, he won’t take their position for granted.
“The ingredients have been the same with them as the season has gone along,” he said. “They play a meat and potatoes kind of game, and you have to work hard to compete with them defensively.”
On Saturday, the Thunder Cats will visit the Grand Forks Border Bruins, where they will face four former Thunder Cats, Austin Dean, Trey Mason, Tyler Fyfe and Graeme Close.
“That’s actually a game we’ve had circled,” said Dubois.
Those four, as well as the efforts of head coach Emery Olauson have helped turn the team around — this is the first season since at least 2005-2006 (kijhl.ca records only go back that far) that Grand Forks has made the playoffs.
“He’s done an outstanding job in Grand Forks,” said Dubois. “They turned themselves into a team tough to play. It’s been a number of years since you could say with a straight face that going into Grand Forks is a test of where you are with gritty, road-type of hockey.”
The Nelson Leafs, whom the Thunder Cats visit on Wednesday, have also gone through a change, with Mario DiBella now the head coach.
“From the bit that I’ve seen, they’re a whole different team since they made the switch,” said Dubois.