Creston Valley Thunder Cats forward Liam Plunkett in the Feb. 23 game against the Columbia Valley Rockies.

Creston Valley Thunder Cats sweep first round of KIJHL playoffs

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The Creston Valley Thunder Cats made short work of the Columbia Valley Rockies, shutting their Eddie Mountain Division rivals out of the first round of Kootenay International Junior Hockey League playoffs.

With scores of 7-2, 5-1, 3-2 and 4-2, Creston ended the best-of-seven series with game 4 in Invermere on Saturday. They will take on the Kimberley Dynamiters, who won their series with the Fernie Ghostriders 4-1, with the first two games in Kimberley on Saturday and Sunday, and games 3 and 4 in Creston on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Thunder Cats head coach Jeff Dubois said Creston’s second-round chances will be helped by their early victory, which allowed a full week of recovery for injured and sick players before taking on the division- and league-leading Dynamiters.

“I don’t think anybody is being naive that it’s going to be an easy series,” he said. “At the same time, we did have some success against them on home ice. We can compete with them over a seven-game series.”

After finishing the 2015-16 season with two games against the Rockies, and winning one, the Thunder Cats hosted the Invermere team for the first two playoff games on Feb. 23 and 24.

Creston started the game tentatively, with no goals until James Severs scored in the second period; the Rockies tied the score with seven seconds remaining.

The Thunder Cats bounced back in the third period, with goals by Grant Iles, Severs and Marc-Antoine Gagnon before the Rockies scored their second. Carson Cartwright, Liam Plunkett and Sebastian Kilcommons followed that with goals of their own.

Dubois was pleased with defencemen Gagnon and Kilcommons’ contributions to the score.

“When we’re at our best offensively, our defencemen are usually involved,” he said. “We encourage our guys to get up in the play and be involved in all three zones.”

The Feb. 24 5-1 win was a hard-fought victory for the Thunder Cats, Dubois said.

“[The Rockies] never gave up. There were probably some opportunities in the second period for us to cruise away with it, but they hung in there.”

Cartwright scored two power-play goals in the first period, and McConnell Kimmett scored in the first minute of second, with the Rockies finally responding with 0:53 remaining in the period. Alec Wilkinson — who also had two assists — and Logan Wullum scored two more for Creston late in the third period.

On Friday, the Rockies hosted the Thunder Cats for the third game, in which Creston’s focus on defense resulted in a 3-2 win.

Iles scored on a power play in the first period, and a second-period goal by Nicholas Kovacik followed a second-period Rockies goal. Jackson Bruce-Fuoco added Creston’s third goal midway through the third period, with Invermere’s response six minutes later.

“It was a tight game, which is exactly what we expected it to be,” said Dubois. “They’re by no means an easy team to shut down offensively.”

In Saturday’s final game, Cartwright scored all four of Creston’s goals, two in the first period, with the second shorthanded, and two in the third, one about five minutes in and the third shorthanded with 1:18 remaining. The Rockies scored two goals in the third period, between Cartwright’s.

“Like he can, he took over the game,” said Dubois.

Rockies goalie Connor McKay proved an asset to his team, stopping a total of 36 Creston shots.

“We had 17 shots in the second period and he stopped all 17,” said Dubois. “He was definitely giving them a chance to stay in the game.”

But Creston’s road game plans worked the way the coaching staff hoped, leading to the four-game victory.

“Nobody was doing their own thing,” said Dubois. “Everybody was on board. In game 4 we only gave up 23 shots, which is exactly the range we want to be in, especially on the road. We didn’t feel we gave them a chance to be successful offensively.”

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