The retired Jamie Benn Peninsula Panthers and Matt Irwin Saanich Braves jerseys hanging respectively from the rafters of the Panorama Recreation Centre and Pearkes Arena speak of past glories. Not to mention a Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League alumni list that includes current and former NHLers Jamie and Jordie Benn, Irwin, Adam Cracknell, Ryan O’Byrne, and numerous eventual WHL/BCHL juniors, NCAA collegians and AHL/ECHL pros.
The current generation of the VIJHL has begun its playoff quest after one of the most competitive regular seasons in recent history.
“Every year the parity gets better,” said Victoria Cougars head coach Suneil Karod.
“That’s good for the league. I would not be shocked by whoever comes through and wins the playoff championship. There’s top-end talent throughout the league and a lot of players are going to move on next season to Junior A.”
The final best-of-seven opening round series begins tonight at the Archie Browning Sports Centre with Karod’s second-seed Cougars (28-12-8) hosting the seventh-seed Oceanside Generals (18-25-5). But don’t let those seedings fool you. The Generals ended the season as one of the hottest teams in the league, including a 2-1 victory over the Cougars in their last meeting.
“Oceanside is a good club that is very aggressive and very physical. This will not be easy,” said Karod.
Not that it’s going to be a walk along the beach, either, for the Parksville-based Generals.
Cougars forward Booker Chacalias was second in goals this season in the VIJHL with 34 and points with 69. And he isn’t alone.
“We are highly offensive with a lot of depth up front,” said Karod.
“We are fast and skilled with 13-14 good forwards.”
But it’s not his own potent power play the Cougars bench boss is concerned about. Karod said the Cougars need to be wary not to beat themselves.
“Discipline is the key for us,” he said.
“We’ve struggled all season staying out of the penalty box. We’ve lost some games because of that.”
A series key will be the play of goaltender Jake Sweet in the Oceanside net.
“We need to get as many pucks as possible on Sweet, and also bodies in front of the net, finding the rebounds,” said Karod.
The VIJHL playoffs began Tuesday with three series openers, including a massive upset as eighth-seed Peninsula stunned the top-seed Campbell River Storm 4-2. The Storm (34-10-4) finished a whopping 54 points ahead of the Panthers (14-25-9) in the standings to win the Andy Hebenton Trophy as regular-season champions.
The Braves (21-17-10) beat the Kerry Park Islanders (24-15-9) 6-4 to start what may be the most competitive series between the four-five seeds. The 2018 league-finalist Braves will need to continue to counter the Kerry Park pair of Evan Easton, who led the league in both goals with 35 and points with 74, and Brandon McClintick, who was the best set-up man in the VIJHL with a leading 48 assists among his league third-best 61 points.
The series-favoured Nanaimo Bucs (26-18-4), seeded third, needed overtime to beat the sixth-seed Westshore Wolves (17-22-9) 3-2 in their opener.
The only team to miss the playoffs this season was the last-place Comox Valley Glacier Kings (4-42-4).
The opening playoff round will be followed by the semifinal round leading to the Brent Patterson Trophy league final. The VIJHL champion will advance to the Fred Cyclone Taylor Cup provincial Junior B championship tournament, hosted this year at Rod Brind’Amour Arena in Campbell River from April 11-14. The Storm are guaranteed a berth as host. So if the defending-champion Storm repeat as VIJHL playoff winners, the league runner-up would also advance to the Cyclone Taylor Cup.