If this was boxing, it would be a battle of the heavyweights. And odds makers would have it as a pick-em (no favourite).
It would also be the rematch everyone’s been waiting for.
There’s not much to chose from between the Victoria Grizzlies (32-18-4-4) and Powell River Kings (29-19-6-4) as they gear up for the B.C. Hockey League’s Island Division final. Only four points separated them in the standings and they were almost equal in goals-for and goals-against this season.
And if you want more proof, the Grizzlies and Kings also met in the Island Division final last season, and that series went the distance and then some with the Grizzlies prevailing in double overtime in Game 7.
Ten Grizzlies return from that team a year ago, while 12 Kings played in that gruelling playoff battle.
“There are a lot of players left on both teams from last season who remember that series and know one another very well so I’m sure it’ll be in both teams’ minds,” said Grizzlies GM and head coach Craig Didmon, whose club won the season series with Powell River by a 5-3 advantage.
Grizzlies forward Justin Michaelian is one of those players who battled neck-and-neck with the Kings a season ago and he said you’d have to be a fool to think last year isn’t going to have an effect on this year’s series, which gets underway tonight at The Q Centre.
“We have a tough rivalry with Powell River now. We don’t like each other very much,” said Michaelian, who leads the Grizzlies in playoff scoring with nine points in seven games.
“We respect one another because we’re both really good teams but I’m sure it’ll carry over from last year because they’ll want some revenge for us ending their season and we’ll be looking to win the series again and move on.”
The Grizzlies are coming off a remarkable seven-game series win over Alberni Valley after they dropped the first three games of the series all in overtime and then won four straight.
The Kings also had a tough opening battle, beating the Nanaimo Clippers in six games.
Now they turn their attention to one another and the Kings bring a lot more offensive weapons to the table than the Bulldogs did. Veteran Carter Turnbull, who’s headed to the NCAA and University of Connecticut in the fall, is tied for the league lead in playoff scoring with 10 points, and Neal Samanski is a point back with nine. Duncan product Ben Berard, who’s committed to Cornell for the fall of 2019, is also having a strong playoff with a team-high four goals.
“They’re skilled up front and will look to beat us that way,” Didmon said. “But they’re also strong on defence so we’re going to have to be on top of our game and not take a shift off.”
The Grizzlies will again try to wear down their opposition with their depth, and a healthy T.J. Friedmann will help in that department. The 19-year-old centre from St. Louis, who’s heading to Qunnipiac in the fall of 2019, missed three games in the opening round with a lower body injury but will be back in the lineup tonight and in his familiar spot between Michaelian and fellow American Shawn O’Malley.
“T.J. has been looking good in practice all week so it’ll be good to have him back to 100 per cent,” Michaelian said of his teammate who had two goals and an assist in the four games he played.
“I enjoy playing with T.J. and Shawn. They’re both skilled guys who work hard and we have some chemistry there, but we need to be a little better than we were early in that Alberni series.”
Junior B call-up Finn Withey has also helped in the depth department. The 18-year-old winger, a late cut from Grizzlies training camp last fall, had a goal and an assist in six games in the opening series, anchoring what has become a solid fourth line for Victoria, mostly with Jordan Guiney and Lach Hadley.
“Finn started skating with us after his season in Comox Valley [VIJHL] ended and when we slotted him in early in the series he continued to play well so we stayed with him,” added Didmon.
The Grizzlies are also hoping to keep from having a let-down following last Sunday’s emotional Game 7 win at The Q Centre.
“I think our guys learned from that series that you can’t have let-downs in the playoffs,” Didmon said. “You need to keep your foot on the gas and that’s we plan on doing.”
Game 2 is Saturday night at The Q Centre, before the series switches to Hap Parker Arena in Powell River for Games 3 and 4 on Monday and Tuesday.
LOOSE PUCKS: One familiar face that won’t be around this series is former Powell River head coach Kent Lewis. The longtime bench boss was fired in late January and replaced by assistant coach Brock Sawyer. . . . The winner of the Victoria-Powell River series will play the winner of the Prince George-Surrey Mainland Division final which begins tonight in P.G. . . . Grizzlies rookie Alex Newhook was named to the BCHL first all-star team and all-rookie team this week.