It’s playoff time! After a fourth-place finish in the BCMML’s regular season, the Okanagan Rockets will host the fifth-place Vancouver NW Giants in the first round of the playoffs, for the second straight year in a row.
Last Weekend: The Rockets wrapped up the regular season with a pair of games against the Cariboo Cougars. After picking up a 4-1 win in the opener on Saturday, the Cougars stormed back for a 6-5 win in overtime on Sunday morning. The Giants are coming off of back-to-back wins over the Kootenay Ice, by scores of 5-0 and 10-3.
Head-to-Head: The Rockets and Giants met four times this season, with the road team winning each matchup. On October 7 and 8, the Giants visited the Capital News Centre, and skated away with wins of 6-4 and 5-1. Jimmy Darby and Christian Buono had three point weekends for the G-Men, while Nik Hoem picked up back-to-back wins. On February 3 and 4, the Rockets left North Vancouver with wins of 5-2 and 4-3. Chase Dafoe was outstanding for the Rockets that weekend (2G/2A), while Will Reimer also chipped in with a three point weekend. That week, Cole Schwebius returned the favour, as he started and won both games.
Historically Speaking: Over the years, the Giants have come out on top of many teams, and the Rockets are no exception. Dating back to the 06/07 campaign, the Giants have an all-time record of 27-13-8 against Okanagan.
The Second Season: For the second time in as many years, the Giants and Rockets will meet in the opening round of the playoffs. But it’s interesting the difference a year makes. Last season, the Rockets came into the series in third, up against the sixth place Giants. But at that time, the Rockets record was mostly because of the team’s outstanding start to the season – and after losing key players, the team played .500 hockey in the second half of the year. Despite finishing this season with nine fewer points than a year ago, the Rockets are frankly playing much better hockey currently than they were at this time last year. On the flip side, this year’s Giants finished with 44 points, just one point off of last year’s 45. Part of what made last year’s upset so impressive for the Giants, was that the team has been plagued with instability over the years. With head coach Aaron Wilbur getting this full season under his belt, he’s about to head into the playoffs with guys that were with him during last year’s run. While the 2017 Giants had some young studs (see: Kindree, Liam), this team’s roster has much more of a veteran presence, with many predicting a finish higher than fifth for this team at the start of the season. Could you say the Giants are in even better position for an upset this year? Could you say the Rockets are in a much better position to avoid that fate? Absolutely. Whatever the case, this should be a great weekend of hockey to kick off the postseason.
Giants To Watch: This year’s scoring champion was former NE Chief Christian Buono, who lead the way with 44 points in 35 games. But the Giants and Rockets are similar in the way they spread the offence around, as six NW Giants finished with at least 30 points on the season. That leaves the other five as ’01 Cooper Connell (36), vets Matteo Pecchia, Jacob Fournier, and Dom Davis (33), and rookie Tyler Cristall (30). A key absence for the Giants would be Logan Doust. The Saskatoon Blades prospect had 16 points this year, but only played in half of the team’s 40 games. On defence, you’ll definitely notice Jason Chu. The 16-year-old led the D with 29 points, and is on the ice in all situations.
Between The Pipes: Veteran Niklas Hoem has led the way for the Giants this season. The former Greater Vancouver Canadian picked up 15 wins in his 29 appearances this season, including two over the Rockets. His backup Jack Ford appeared in 13 games, including the Feb. 4 outing against Okanagan. Ford managed 4 wins this season, and held down a 3.86 in his first MML season. For the Rockets, Cole Schwebius won two of his three games against the Giants this year, and is arguably the biggest piece of the Rockets potential playoff success. He appeared in 30 of the team’s 40 games, with 14 wins and a 2.95 GAA to show for it.
Playoff Format: Time for a quick refresher on the league’s playoff format. Eight of the 11 teams in the league make the playoffs, with Kootenay, North Island, and South Island looking in from the outside. That leaves three rounds of league playoffs, with the quarters, semis, and league finals all consisting of best-of-three series’. The top four seeds get home-ice advantage in the first round, with the remaining teams re-seeded for the semi-finals and finals, respectively. For example, if all four top seeds come out on top this weekend, the Cougars would host Fraser Valley, and the Hawks would take on the Rockets in the Valley during the second round. Interesting to note that this year, we’re seeing first-round rematches in three of the four playoff series’. One rematch is Valley West taking on the NE Chiefs, which looks plenty different than last year. In 2017, the second-place Chiefs hosted the seventh-place Hawks, and swept them in two games. Valley West topped the league standings this year, lost only seven games all season, and will host the eighth-place Chiefs. Elsewhere, Fraser Valley will host GVC in a rematch of last year’s 4-5 matchup. That series saw fourth-place GVC knock off the Birds, en route to the league finals against Cariboo. This year, Fraser Valley is at home as the third-place seed, and will be much tougher to knock off. Lastly, the Cariboo Cougars are home in Prince George to the Thompson Blazers. Last year saw Cariboo host Kootenay in Round 1, which resulted in a sweep.
Image Credit: Jacob Lazare/Vancouver NE Chiefs
Once the league title is decided, the winner of the BCMML plays the top Midget-AAA team from Alberta, to decide who gets one of six berths in the national championship – the Telus Cup. This year, the tournament is being hosted by the hometown Nickel Capital Wolves, in Sudbury, Ontario. At the same time as that BC-Alberta showdown, winners from leagues across the country will crown a provincial champion for Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime provinces. As well, the Thunder Bay Kings of Thunder Bay, Ontario are hosting the Western Regionals this year. That’s a four-team qualifier, which pits a host team against the winners from Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Northwestern Ontario. What’s interesting to note from that qualifier is that there’s only two teams that play in the Northwestern Ontario circuit – the Kings, and the Kenora Thistles. That means that since Thunder Bay is hosting, and since the weekend requires an Ontarian representative, Thunder Bay’s position as host also guarantees Kenora a spot in the qualifier. Long story short, when it’s finally time for the Telus Cup in April there will be six teams in attendance: The host (Sudbury), the BC-AB winner (Pacific), the Ontario winner, or runner-up if Sudbury runs the table (Central), the Quebec winner (Quebec), the Maritime winner (Atlantic), and the West Regional winner. The tourney runs in Sudbury from April 23-29. This year is also the 40th anniversary year of the RBC Cup championship.