CRESTON — All season long, Kimberley Dynamiters head coach Jerry Bancks has praised the play of his 20-year-old veterans.
Wednesday night at the Johnny Bucyk Arena, it was a hungry group of defending KIJHL champions that once again out battled and edged a highly-skilled and structured Creston Valley Thunder Cats squad as the Dynamiters claimed a 4-3 overtime victory, sweeping through to the KIJHL’s Kootenay Conference championship.
“It was our drive and will to win [that set us apart],” said Dynamiters goaltender Tyson Brouwer following Wednesday’s series-clinching win. “Coming into playoffs, I had fond memories of last year and I want to make new memories with this group. All the guys that were with us last year have the same mentality.”
On the heels of a two-goal performance in Game 3, hometown boy Jared Marchi saved his best for last in the Eddie Mountain Division final, scoring the game- and series-clinching goal 4:29 into the first overtime period Wednesday.
Between the pipes, Brouwer was his usually spectacular self, turning aside 36 pucks for his eighth victory of the 2016 KIJHL post-season.
“Tremendous credit to [the Thunder Cats], I was very impressed with how they came out in the first period,” Bancks said Wednesday. “Our guys weren’t ready to match them. They are a very skilled, very fast and very good team.
“Our guys can be proud, no matter what happens from here, because we just beat one of the best teams in the KIJHL.”
Prior to Marchi’s game-winner, the Dynamiters received goals from Eric Buckley, Jason Richter and Keenan Haase, while the Thunder Cats responded with tallies from Carson Cartwright, Logan Styler and Alec Wilkinson.
Brock Lefebvre made 27 saves in a losing effort, but was stellar all night despite the outcome.
The series-ending sequence provided ultimate deja vu for those who had taken in any of the hockey prior to Game 4.
With the opening overtime period wearing down, Styler burst down the left side into Kimberley territory and appeared to have a clear lane to put a puck on net with traffic building around Brouwer’s crease. Instead, the Thunder Cats’ speedster opted to dish back towards the high slot, but the attempt was broken up and the Dynamiters turned the play up ice.
“It turned out to be a 3-on-2,” Marchi said, recounting the lead up to his goal. “We had a good middle drive that took the other ‘D’ man to the net and gave me lots of time in the slot. Coach had pounded into my head to shoot low blocker. Since I’m left-handed I did that and it just happened to find its way into the net.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling. It kind of leaves you speechless for a little bit. I had no idea what to do after I saw the light go on. I just jumped, slid on my knees. I was just too happy to even think about what I was doing out there. It’s definitely a great feeling.”
The tally put an end to a series that, despite ending in a four-game sweep, required three overtime games to find a decision.
“We showed up every night. Game 3 for us was a struggle, for sure, and one we’d like to have back, but short of that… There wasn’t much to regret,” said Jeff Dubois, head coach and general manager of the Thunder Cats. “I wouldn’t say we were at our best for 65 minutes, but we showed some jam coming back late in [Game 4].
“Kimberley is obviously a top team. You kind of chuckle at the end of the series thinking we took three games to overtime and went 0-for-3. What are the chances? That’s the difference between the season being done [Wednesday] and going a little further.”
Set aside a 5-2 Dynamiters victory in Game 3, this was a series tightly contested from the first puck drop straight through to the final red light.
Game 4 served as the third overtime game in the series and Marchi’s heroics might not have been necessary if not for a fantastic late-game effort from Wilkinson.
With only 2:23 remaining in regulation, the Thunder Cats won a draw to the glove side of Brouwer. Wilkinson snuck through the defense and sent a quick, low shot to the back of the net, bringing a raucous crowd to its feet at the Johnny Bucyk Arena as he tied the game 3-3, eventually forcing overtime.
“It always is tough, but I think as a goaltender, you face that a lot,” Brouwer said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s playoffs, regular season, third period or second period when you get scored on. I have little tricks I do to get my head back in the game. I think of it as we still have a lead and it’s just one goal. That’s just how I try to come about those things.
“I know the team is going to get it back anyways, so it’s easy to bounce back from.”
Prior to that, it looked as though Haase was going to be the late-game hero.
After both teams buckled down with a 2-2 tie on the board and 20 minutes remaining in regulation, Haase jumped on a bouncing puck in the slot, sending a shot through a maze of legs to the back of the net, giving the visitors a 3-2 lead with only 5:02 to play.
It was simply another eye-popping moment in a game and series that had consistently produced unpredictable, entertaining, back-and-forth hockey.
As Bancks alluded to, the Thunder Cats came out in the first period like a team fighting for its last life.
With the sustained pressure the Thunder Cats were able to establish, it was only a matter of time before Cartwright found some free space and when he did, he made good on it, sending a sharp snap shot bar down and in behind Brouwer for a 1-0 Creston lead.
The Thunder Cats continued to pour the pressure on, finishing the period with a 1-0 lead on the scoreboard and a 14-3 advantage in shots.
If the Dynamiters forgot their legs on the bus for the first period, they certainly went back and dug them out for the second.
“I never once felt we weren’t going to somehow win this game,” Bancks said. “Once I saw how we came out at the start of the second period, I thought we were going to win the game… I had a good feeling. It’s a pretty special group.”
Buckley got the visitors on the board early in the period, jamming home a net-side effort to tie the game 1-1 only 40 seconds in.
Less than five minutes later, Richter did his best Cartwright impression. Left alone in the circle with time and space, the Kimberley captain fired a hot shot past Lefebvre to give the Dynamiters their first lead of the night.
Before the middle period was over, Styler snuck to the backdoor and banged a loose puck past Brouwer to knot the game 2-2 after 40 minutes.
After being significantly outshot and out-possessed in the first period, the Nitros were able to tilt the ice in their favour during the second period, outshooting the Thunder Cats by a 14-10 margin.
For the Thunder Cats, it is the second consecutive year their season has come to an end at the hands of the Dynamiters. In 2015, Kimberley worked past Creston in a five-game Eddie Mountain Division semifinal before eventually going on to win the KIJHL championship.
“You look at the group Kimberley’s had the past couple years, which is a special group with Richter, Marchi, Brouwer, Buckley, Busch, Meier and so forth, maybe it was our bad luck, Carson Cartwright’s bad luck or Alec Wilkinson’s bad luck that they just happened to come along at the same time Kimberley has had a pretty dominant group of veteran players,” Dubois said. “If we weren’t in Kimberley’s division, we’re probably playing hockey a little bit longer. It just so happens that the team that went on to win the championship last year, and who you have to expect has a pretty good chance to do the same this year, is a team we’re going to face in the first or second round.
“That speaks to the strength of the division. But we had a group of 20-year-olds… that laid it all on the line. It’s tough to come up just short, but it’s how she goes sometimes.”
With the win, the Dynamiters advance to the Kootenay Conference final for the second consecutive year and will face whichever team emerges from the Neil Murdoch Division final.
Wednesday night, the Grand Forks Border Bruins scored a 2-1 overtime victory at home against the Beaver Valley Nitehawks, staving off elimination and forcing a fifth game in the best-of-seven series.
“We can't get satisfied,” Brouwer said. “You can’t sit around and wait for your next opponent and think because you swept you’re going to walk into the next series.
“You’ve just got to keep level-headed. Even though we won last year, it’s harder this year than it was last year. We have to keep our heads on straight and focus on the prize.”
Wednesday, March 9
Kimberley Dynamiters 4 at C.V. Thunder Cats 3 (OT)
First Period1. CVT - C. Cartwright, (A. Wilkinson, T. Cankovic), 12:45
Second Period2. KIM - E. Buckley, (J. Marchi, J. Richter), 0:403. KIM - J. Richter, (unassisted), 4:584. CVT - L. Styler, (I. Desrosiers, B. Witala), 10:43
Third Period5. KIM - K. Haase, (S. Hunt), 14:586. CVT - A. Wilkinson, (T. Cankovic, C. Cartwright), 17:37
Overtime 17. KIM - J. Marchi, (J. Richter), 4:29
Shots 1 2 3 OT TKimberley Dynamiters 3 14 12 3 32C.V. Thunder Cats 14 10 13 2 39
Goaltenders Saves Mins SV%KIM - Tyson Brouwer 36/39 63:29 0.923CVT - Brock Lefebvre 27/31 63:29 0.871
Power plays: KIM - 0/3 (00.0%); CVT - 0/1 (00.0%)Attendance: 675
KIJHL Eddie Mountain Division FinalCreston Valley Thunder Cats (2) vs. Kimberley Dynamiters (1)
DYNAMITERS WIN SERIES 4-0Game 1 - Thunder Cats 1 at Dynamiters 2 (2OT)Game 2 - Thunder Cats 1 at Dynamiters 2 (OT)Game 3 - Dynamiters 5 at Thunder Cats 2Game 4 - Dynamiters 4 at Thunder Cats 3 (OT)