On paper, the first round NWJHL series between the Dawson Creek Jr. Canucks and the Sexsmith Vipers looked lopsided in the Canucks’ favour, and it played out that way in real life. With a 5-2 Game 3 victory on Feb. 18, the Canucks advance to the second round, after previously beating the Vipers 4-3 and 9-3 in the series.
“It was a good test for us, Sexsmith has a good hockey team. We needed some up-beat games going into the next round to get us prepared,” Canucks Head Coach Gene Cooper said.
A big take-away Cooper had from the series was his team’s improvement in communication and back-checking.
“We’ve improved in terms of who’s identifying who on defence, and a big part of this series for us was eliminating opportunities,” said Cooper.
The Canucks will face the North Peace Navigators, who also swept their first round series against the Beaverlodge Blades. The series begins Saturday, Feb. 24 in Peace River. Game two goes in Dawson Creek, Feb. 25 at 1:30 pm.
The Navigators, who had 53 points in the regular season, were second in the league, three points ahead of the Canucks. They will be a tough matchup for the Canucks, in that they are a good team with a great goalie and lots of playoff experience, but the Canucks do seem to match up well with them.
The teams were 3-3 in six games this season against each other. The Canucks scored 21 goals while the Navigators only scored 19 against Dawson Creek. That is only one more goal than the Beaverlodge Blades and Fairview Flyers scored against the Canucks.
The season stats bear this out, too. The Canucks had 181 goals for, good enough for second in the league, and 19 more than the Navigators had. However, the Navigators only allowed 102 goals, also good enough for second, while the Canucks allowed 144.
It appears to be a case of offence versus defence, and the Canucks like their chances.
“They have a good goaltender, a lot of experience and a winning track record. There will be good hockey to be played, and we want people to support it because the boys are playing well,” Cooper said.
“They better look out, because we want it. We match up really well, it’s playoff hockey, we’re gritty and tough, and I don’t think they can hang with us,” said Liam Craig, who had a big four-point night in the deciding game against the Vipers.
Though some might view them as underdogs, the Canucks are a team that believes they can and will win it all.
“The feeling is there, they want to win it, I know there’s enough leaders in that room to step up and get the job done,” said Cooper.
Cooper said this is the first time in over 10 years that the Canucks have made it out of the first round.
“The guys recognize these opportunities don’t come around often and they’re making the most of it.”
Craig was more poetic about it.
“Something magical is happening,” he said.
On Feb. 17, the NWJHL awards for the 2017-18 season were announced. To nobody’s surprise, Wesley Shipton was the top scorer and league MVP. His 45 goals, 82 points, and six game winning goals were tops in the league, all by wide margins.
“To see the success Wesley’s had has been fantastic. He tries hard, loves the game of hockey, and wants to play every night. Hopefully the kids in minor hockey see that and want to do the same thing,” said Cooper.
Defenceman Trey Nichol also was recognized, winning the Most Gentlemanly Player award. Nichol had 19 points and just two penalty minutes in 27 games in his second year with the Canucks.
“For two years in a row he’s played the same style of game. Level-headed, focuses on playing hockey, and we appreciate his time on the ice and not in the penalty box,” Cooper said of Nichol.