When it comes to playoff hockey in the B.C. Hockey League, Marty Westhaver has seen it all.
The 20-year-old captain of the Victoria Grizzlies has played 25 post-season games in the past two seasons. And it would have been more had he not injured his shoulder in Game 1 of the Coastal Conference final last spring against the eventual-champion Prince George Spruce Kings.
Westhaver has seen the ups — a four-game sweep of the Alberni Valley Bulldogs last year — and the downs, like losing a Game 7 to the Powell River Kings two seasons ago.
So when Westhaver leads his Grizzlies into the Shaw Centre in Salmon Arm tonight for Game 1 of their opening-round series against the Silverbacks, he will have his young group of Grizzlies well-prepared for everything.
“Playoff hockey is a whole different animal,” said Westhaver, who finished with 44 points in 50 games this season.
“Everything it turned up a notch. The tempo, the pace of the game, everything is cranked up.
“And there’ll be plenty of adversity. Adversity will come up and slap you in the face a lot harder than it did in the regular season, so controlling that adversity and the ups and downs is the most important thing. You just gotta keep plugging away.”
Until last weekend’s final two regular season games in Powell River, the Grizzlies had done a fine job of plugging away. They were 7-1-1 in their previous nine games before losing the last two at Hap Parker Arena. The games didn’t mean anything as both teams were locked into playoff spots already, but the Grizzlies hope to get back on track tonight.
“For sure that wasn’t the way we wanted to end the regular season, but those weren’t your typical games so I’m not too worried,” added Westhaver, who will head to the NCAA and the University of Alabama-Huntsville in the fall.
“We’ve got a good, young team that is hungry to succeed now that everyone is on even terms now. We’re starting a new season now.”
That new season begins against an Interior Division team as the Grizzlies (24-33-1) finished last in the Island Division but were the No. 1 wild-card seed. That makes for a showdown with Salmon Arm (30-23-5), which finished third in the Interior. The two teams split the season series with the Silverbacks winning 5-3 in Salmon Arm in September and the Grizzlies winning 6-2 last month at The Q Centre.
“Salmon Arm is a deep hockey club, right from goaltending to defence to the forwards so we know we have to play hard and smart and take nothing for granted,” said Grizzlies GM and head coach Craig Didmon.
“It’s a tough challenge for us, no question, especially starting in a lively rink like the Shaw Centre, but the guys are excited and really up for the challenge.”
Didmon’s troops are anything but playoff tested. Rookies like James Davenport, Isaac Bandu and Chace Oliver on defence and Cody Monds, Brendan Bowie, Chase Oliver and Andrew Amousse up front, will all be experiencing their first playoff atmosphere in junior hockey.
“It is a young group, but I know they’ll play with energy and enthusiasm needed,” added Didmon. “There will be a learning curve, but they have all played playoff hockey in prep school and other levels so they will be quick to adapt to the adversities that you face in the playoffs.”
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series goes Saturday night in Salmon Arm, before the series switches to Victoria for Games 3 and 4 at The Q Centre on Monday and Tuesday.
Here’s a look at how the teams match up:
At first glance, the Silverbacks look to have the advantage as veteran Ethan Langenegger had a solid season going 23-15-2 with a 2.79 goals-against average and .908 save percentage, but the Grizzlies aren’t far behind, thanks to the impressive run in the last month by 20-year-old Liam Souliere. The Penn State-bound netminder finished 9-6 after missing the first half of the season, thanks to an injury in preseason, but the Quebec native won seven of his last 10 starts and finished with a 3.37 GAA and .917 save percentage.
No one will argue who has the advantage here. Salmon Arm’s Akito Hirose was named the BCHL’s top defenceman, thanks to the 20-year-old Minnesota State-commit’s 51 points that was tops among all league blue-liners. Hirose’s 42 assists were third among all BCHL skaters. The Grizzlies are led on the blue line by rookie Davenport. The 19-year-old, who’ll head to Northeastern University in the fall, had eight goals and 20 assists in 54 games. It’s a big drop off after that for the Grizzlies, but Brady MacDonald has looked good since returning from a lengthy injury layoff. MacDonald finished with 12 points in 23 games and his big body will be needed to stymie the skilled Salmon Arm forwards.
While the Grizzlies’ attack up front is led by an 18-year-old rookie in Monds, the Silverbacks offence is led by three 20-year-olds and a 19-year-old. Monds, a Providence College commit for 2021, led Victoria in scoring with 59 points, 22 of which were goals. He was followed by 19-year-old Henri Schreifels who had a strong second half to the season, leading the team in goals with 24 and earning a scholarship to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Nineteen-year-old Salmon Arm native Noah Wakefield was second on the Silverbacks in points with 50, while 20-year-old Daniel Rybarik, who will head to the University of Alaska-Anchorage in the fall, led the team in goals with 31. If the Grizzlies are to keep pace on offence with Salmon Arm, they’ll need their highly-touted 18-year-old rookies Bowie, McInnis and Amousse to continue the strong play they showed down the stretch, and veterans Alex DiPaolo and Vincent Nardone to continue to click on the power play.