Creston Valley Thunder Cats are division champs for the first time

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The Creston Valley Thunder Cats celebrate after defeating the Kimberley Dynamiters to win the division title on Saturday.

The Creston Valley Thunder Cats celebrate after defeating the Kimberley Dynamiters to win the division title on Saturday.

For the first time since the Creston Valley Thunder Cats took to the ice in 2000, the team will advance to the third round of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League playoffs, having become the Eddie Mountain Division champions after defeating the Kimberley Dynamiters in game 7 of round 2.

The series was a nail-biter for fans, who watched the Thunder Cats win the first game at home, then lose the following three. They won the next three, with Saturday’s game 7 win seeing them swing from being down 4-1 to winning the game 5-4.

“We have a group of guys in our room that really believe in themselves,” said head coach Josh Hepditch. “They’re working hard and it’s coming together for them”

The Thunder Cats lost game 4 6-3 to the Dynamiters on March 11, despite outshooting Kimberley 38-24.

“Their goalie was unreal,” said Hepditch. “He stole them the game.”

Thunder Cat Colby Livingstone started the game’s scoring, with an unassisted goal midway through the first period. The Dynamiters scored two goals late in the period, and then two in the second before Livingstone scored his second goal at 4:56. It was a similar story in the third period, with Kimberley scoring twice before Trevor Hanna scored the Thunder Cats’ third of the night, assisted by Carson Cartwright and Livingstone, who earned three points that evening.

“That was the best game I’ve ever seen him play,” said Hepditch.

The action returned to Creston on March 13 for game 5, giving the Thunder Cats a boost of confidence.

“Our backs were against the wall,” said Hepditch. “I don’t think there was one guy in the room that didn’t think we could come back in the series.”

Thunder Cat Jesse Collins scored the first period’s only goal, and Kimberley followed that with two in the second period before Hanna tied the score at 2:45. Colton St. John scored the game-winner at 13:12 in the third period, and Collins scored again, with an empty-netter at 1:05.

“It was nice to see our 20-year-olds step up in a game like that,” said Hepditch.

With game 6 played Friday on the Dynamiters’ home ice, the Thunder Cats had to dig deep in order to stay on track.

“We had to play with pure desperation,” said Hepditch. “It was really do or die for us. We knew that it was going to be biggest game of the series for us.”

It was another 4-2 victory for the Thunder Cats, whose scoring started with a power-play goal by Tyler Podgorenko five minutes into the game. Livingstone (power play) and Seth Schmidt scored in the second period before penalty trouble resulted in two Dynamiters goals. Collins added a fourth goal for the Thunder Cats with just over seven minutes left in the game.

For Saturday’s game in Creston, the John Bucyk Arena was “packed before warm-up,” said Hepditch, with the attendance eventually topping 1,000.

The game started with a good first period, which saw Cartwright score on a power play at 9:43, with Kimberley tying the score a few minutes later. A weaker second period saw the Dynamiters take the lead, scoring one unassisted and two power-play goals.

“We melted,” said Hepditch. “We got outplayed and outshot.”

In the third period, he capitalized on one of the Thunder Cats’ strengths, the ability to roll a few lines to keep players from tiring. And it worked, with Andrew Hodder, Collins and Logan Styler scoring to tie the game 4-4.

A Dynamiters penalty at 2:27 proved timely for the Thunder Cats, whose power play stepped up, with Schmidt scoring the game-winner at 2:06.

“You couldn’t have written a better script for this,” said Hepditch. “It was unbelievable. I’ve gotten texts and emails from people who said it was the best sporting event they’ve ever seen in their life.”

With only three days of rest between games, though, the Thunder Cats will be back at it on tonight and tomorrow, hosting the Beaver Valley Nitehawks — who topped the Neil Murdoch Division by beating the Nelson Leafs in six games — as they compete for the KIJHL’s Kootenay Conference title. The Nitehawks and Thunder Cats both earned 80 points in the regular season, with the Thunder Cats 39 wins, compared to the Nitehawks’ 38, giving them home-ice advantage.

The Nitehawks have a half-dozen really skilled players, plus strong defence and goaltending, so the series should be an exciting one.

“After our last series, we’d say nothing’s impossible,” he said. “We definitely don’t think it’s going to be a walk in the park. … It’s going to take a lot of hard work and sticking to our game plan.”