Two wins against their first-round playoff opponents have helped the Creston Valley Thunder Cats to sew up one of their best ever seasons, with 36 regular season wins and 74 points.
Creston finishes the regular schedule in first place in the Eddie Mountain Division and in third place overall in the KIJHL. Only the Beaver Valley Nitehawks, with 79 points, and Osoyoos Coyotes, with 76, had better records. If both Creston and Kimberley advance to the second round, the third and fifth best teams will meet once again in what seems like an annual tradition.
To advance, Creston will have to get by the Columbia Rockies, their victims in both of last weekend’s games. Kimberley will face the tough Fernie Ghostriders.
Creston outshot the Rockies 37-18 at home on Friday night and had a comfortable 5-1 lead before late goals by Mike Dyck and Jayden Jefferson made the score competitive.
“We had a strong game in the Rockies defensive zone, creating chances and controlling the game down low,” Thunder Cats assistant coach Brad Tobin said on Sunday. “But consistency in our effort level away from the puck and in our own end needs to be there for a full 60 minutes.”
Bryce Sturm (Paxton Malone and Brodie Smith) and Dyck traded first period goals, then Sturm (Mitchell Wolfe and Liam Rycroft) and Liam Plunkett (McConnell Kimmett and Jonathan Lee) gave Creston a 3-1 lead after 40 minutes of play.
Rycroft (Wolfe and Grant Iles) and Austin Anselmo (Lee and Kimmett) put the game away for the Thunder Cats in the final frame.
“Bryce Sturm played a great game for us, scoring our first two goals of the game,” Tobin said. “He was using his speed to create scoring chances and keep the Rockies’ defense on edge throughout the contest.”
Brock Lefebvre had his final pre-playoff tune-up, turning aside 15 shots.
The teams played a rematch in Invermere on Saturday night, with the visitors prevailing by a 4-2 margin.
The Rockies jumped to a quick lead when Braydon Barker scored 35 seconds into the game. But three Creston scorers responded. Ronnie Wilkie (Thomas Cankovic and Aiden Wong), Shayne Walker (Kimmett and Michael Spenrath) and Iles (Plunkett and Wolfe) gave the T-Cats a 3-1 lead.
After a scoreless second period, Cooper Krauss drew Columbia Valley to within a goal but Plunkett’s empty netter from Iles ended the scoring.
Patrick Ostermann had a busy time in goal, facing 39 shots, while Ben Kelsch stopped 25 of 28 Creston shots.
“We understood that Friday night’s effort wasn’t good enough and corrected it, putting a full 60 minute effort in with a short handed roster–just making sure that we’re paying attention to details on the defensive side of the puck and winning puck battles in front of our own net,” the coach said. “Grant Iles played some big minutes up front for us with a short handed roster.”
Post-season action kicks off with Creston hosting the Rockies on Friday and Saturday night. The teams then head to Invermere for a pair of games on Monday and Tuesday.
With the team now looking forward to a more intense schedule of playoff hockey, Tobin said the last two games provided good preparation for the first round.
“We’re looking forward to getting the playoffs started next Friday at home against the Rockies. With playing them in our last two regular season games, we got some time to get reacquainted with their systems and personnel. We had a number of players out of the lineup this weekend on day-to-day status and also Justen James was back up with the Trail Smoke Eaters for a couple games.
“Everyone will be on the ice and fully healthy Monday as we start preparing for our first round series with Columbia Valley. The players are looking forward to having large and boisterous crowds for both Friday and Saturday night’s games, and are asking all of the Creston Valley to get behind them for the playoff run.”