Victoria Cougars on the prowl for another VIJHL title

The calibre of play in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League has received some good advertisement this season in the WHL.

Riley Gannon, last season’s VIJHL rookie of the year with the Nanaimo Buccaneers, has proven a useful forward with the Victoria Royals, and forward Cage Newans of the VIJHL’s Oceanside Generals showed well as an affiliated call-up last week for the Royals.

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Not that it’s unusual for the VIJHL, which has produced NHLers such as Jamie and Jordie Benn, Matt Irwin, Adam Cracknell and Ryan O’Byrne.

“There are lots of good, young players in our league,” said Victoria Cougars GM and head coach Brody Coulter.

“We have Davis Frank, who was drafted by Saskatoon of the WHL. Desmond Arthurs got a good look by the Royals this year and will be in BCHL next season.”

Now comes playoff time in the VIJHL.

“This is the time of year guys get noticed and the best step up,” said Coulter.

Coulter’s Cougars, top seed in both the South Division and overall VIJHL with a scorching regular-season record of 41-6-1, begin the post-season tonight at 7 in the Archie Browning Sports Centre against the fourth-seed Saanich Braves (20-21-7). The second game is Friday at 6:30 p.m. in Pearkes Arena.

All series are best-of-sevens.

The other South Division opening-round series features the second-seed Peninsula Panthers (35-13) against the third-seed Westshore Wolves (26-18-4). The Panthers won the first game 5-2 Monday at the Panorama Recreation Centre. The Wolves prevailed 4-2 in Game 2 on Wednesday night at The Q Centre. The third game is Friday at Panorama.

The VIJHL North Division playoffs feature top-seed Oceanside (31-14-3) against fourth-seed Kerry Park Islanders (11-34-3) with the Generals opening with a 4-1 victory in the Victor Kraatz/Howie Meeker complex at Oceanside Place in Parksville. The second game was Wednesday night at Kerry Park Arena and the third game is at Oceanside Place on Friday evening.

The second-seed Campbell River Storm are meeting the third-seed Buccaneers (14-23-11) in the other North Division semifinal with the Bucs pulling out a 2-1 overtime upset win in the first game at Rod Brind’Amour Arena. The second game is tonight at the Nanaimo Ice Centre and the third game Friday night back at the Brindy.

“We had success in the regular season but there is a lot of parity in the league,” warned Coulter, who said his Cougars can take nothing for granted.

“As top seed, you have a target on your back and everyone is out to get you. Everyone elevates their game in the playoffs. So we have to also elevate our game. We are motivated. We had several games at the end of the regular season after we clinched. It’s great getting back into games now that really mean something. Saanich finished strong at the end of the season. It is not going to be an easy series.”

The secret to the Cats’ success in the regular season, said Coulter, has been balance and depth: “We rely on all four lines, have solid team defence and two good goalies. Team defence is the important thing in the playoffs. The offensive guys have to buy into defence, too.”

The defending VIJHL-champion Cougars lost to the Revelstoke Grizzlies in the final of the 2019 Fred Cyclone Taylor Cup B.C. Junior B championship tournament last spring at Rod Brind’Amour Arena in Campbell River.

Last season’s Cougars head coach, Suneil Karod, became assistant coach this season with the Swan Valley Stampeders of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. General manager and former assistant coach Coulter stepped up to replace Karod to take on the dual role of Cougars head coach and GM. He knows the organization well. In three seasons as a player with the Cougars, Coulter scored 260 points in 145 games, including the VIJHL record for points in a season with 118 in 2012-13 season. After his playing career, Coulter joined the Cougars as an assistant coach in 2013-14. He was appointed GM prior to last season.

The dual roles come with a single aim. Last year’s loss to Revelstoke in the B.C. championship game counts as unfinished business for the Cougars as only six Island teams have won the Cyclone Taylor Cup — the Comox Totems in 1967, Victoria Cubs in 1971, Braves in 1976, Cougars in 2007, Panthers in 2011 and Storm in 2015.

The VIJHL playoff champion will represent the league at the 2020 Cyclone Taylor Cup in April at 100 Mile House.

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