The regular season may be finished for the Creston Valley Thunder Cats, but their time on the ice isn’t over, with the first round of the playoffs starting Friday in Kimberley.
With 62 points, the Thunder Cats finished third in the Eddie Mountain Division of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League, behind the Kimberley Dynamiters (69 points) and Fernie Ghostriders (78). Behind them were the Golden Rockets (51) and the Columbia Valley Rockies (30), the latter of which didn’t earn a playoff spot.
Thunder Cats head coach Jeff Dubois said the best-of-seven series — Friday and Saturday in Kimberley, then Monday and Tuesday in Creston — will be a tough one.
“They’ve been on a real good run in the last six weeks and they’re a real strong team on their home ice,” he said of the Dynamiters. “Right through our lineup and staff, you know anything less than a pretty complete effort isn’t going to get the job done against a team of that calibre.”
Despite the tough road ahead, Dubois said he won’t be pushing his players too far during this week’s practices.
“There’s a lot of preparation that goes in based on what we want to do with our systems and preparing our guys for what they’re going see coming out of Kimberley,” he said. “We’re trying to maintain our condition and be fresh and focused for when the series starts on Friday.”
In their final three games of the season, the Thunder Cats enjoyed a win, but sustained losses to the Fernie Ghostriders and Golden Rockets.
Fernie visited Creston on Feb. 10, and the Thunder Cats put themselves in a hole, allowing two Fernie goals in the second period and two early in the third. They bounced back well, with goals by Jack Berger, Connor Ward (power play) and Logan Wullum, but couldn’t quite manage a tying goal.
“It feels strange to be happy with a loss, but after winning a couple games where the effort wasn’t anywhere near what it could have been, we came back in that period and the guys didn’t quit,” said Dubois. “It was a good sign to see that pushback after we put ourselves in a bit of a hole.”
He was particularly pleased to see Wullum’s effort. One of two 16-year-olds on the team, the Creston native was on a line with Nicholas Kovacik and Lien Miller-Jeannotte when he scored his goal as part of a comeback attempt.
“He’s really come on in the second half of the season,” said Dubois. “He’s really picked up his game. He’s gotten a lot more comfortable with the speed and physicality of our league.”
The Thunder Cats bounced back from that loss to beat the Rockets 7-3 in the first of two weekend games against the Golden team.
A goal by Connor Kidd in the first period and goals by Carson Cartwright and Miller-Jeannotte in the second gave the Thunder Cats a 3-0 lead heading into the third period. The lead didn’t last, though, with Golden scoring its first goal at 18:53. Goals by Wullum and Ward (shorthanded) followed, then a Golden goal, and then goals by Cartwright and Kidd before Golden scored the final goal with 20 second remaining.
“From a coaching standpoint, it’s one where we’re happy with the win, but we wish we hadn’t given up three late in the game,” said Dubois.
Cartwright’s goals allowed him to edge past the 60-point mark, ending the season with 61.
“He’s a guy who’s driven things for us offensively,” said Dubois.
Saturday’s game against the Rockets (at which the team shaved their heads in support of a young cancer patient) was a 2-1 loss for Creston, which saw an early Golden goal matched by Alec Wilkinson at 14:22 in the first period. Golden scored the game-winner on a power play at 13:22 in the second.
“We came out pretty flat the first 40 minutes,” said Dubois. “It looked like our minds were elsewhere.”
The Thunder Cats took back control in the third, a chance aided by goalie Brock Lefebvre’s, who stopped all 11 Golden shots.
“Even though he took the loss, it was a real solid way for him to finish out the regular season,” said Dubois.