Friday, March 19, 2010

Interior Preview: Vees And Vipers Renew Rivalry On Conference Finals:

Interior Preview: Vees and Vipers renew rivalry in Conference Finals

Thursday, March 18, 2010 - Submitted by Chad Klassen

#1 – Vernon Vipers vs. #2 – Penticton Vees

Vernon: 51-6-0-3; 105 points
Penticton: 48-8-0-4; 100 points

The marquee matchup most BCHL fans anticipated entering the playoffs has come to fruition. The Interior's No. 1 seed, the Vernon Vipers, will meet the No. 2 Penticton Vees for a spot in the Fred Page Cup Final beginning Friday night at the Wesbild Centre.

“You've got the two teams that have won the last two BCHL championships going head-to-head and two teams that have been rivals for many years,” says Vees’ head coach Fred Harbinson.

The Vipers are the defending champions after beating Powell River in six games last spring. Penticton captured the Interior Conference by sweeping the Westside Warriors in 2008 before taking down Nanaimo to win the Fred Page Cup.

Interestingly, it’s also the sixth straight year hockey fans will witness the Interior’s two top seeds battle for the conference title. And either Penticton or Vernon has been a part of the every Interior Final in the last five seasons, including a clash between the two in 2007, when the second-ranked Vipers beat the first-place Vees in five games to win one of three conference championships since 2005.

“These two teams are so evenly matched," says Vipers' bench boss Mark Ferner. "You look at the standings and we had 105 points, but they had 100. I don’t know if that’s ever happened in the league before, especially in the same division. It’s just unfortunate one of the team’s isn’t going to move on."

The Vipers roll into the Interior Conference Finals on the heels of two straight shutouts to close out a six-game series win over the Quesnel Millionaires. After only six regulation losses during the regular season, Vernon dropped two games to the fifth-ranked Mills in the semis. But the defending Fred Page Cup champions have rebounded nicely and head into the series with momentum and a renewed sense of confidence.

“Credit to Quesnel, they’ve made us a better hockey team. We went through the same scenario last year with Salmon Arm – a hard-fought, physical series and we felt like we were a better team for it. That’s something I talked to our players when we got home: we feel like we’re battle-ready now."

Meanwhile, Penticton battled six games with the Westside Warriors, finally winning the series in overtime on Tuesday night. As a result of that grinding semi-final win, the Vees have come out on the other end a better team.

“Obviously Penticton is a very talented group," says Ferner, the Vipers' architect. "What people don’t realize is they haven’t been healthy all year and now they’re healthy. They’re going to be a very dangerous hockey team. Top to bottom they don’t have a lot of hole in their line-up, so this is going to be a very interesting series. It’ll be fun to play, fun for the fans and I don’t think you can ask for anything better."

During the regular season the Vipers and Vees met on six occasions and the season series was dead even with each team banking three wins. Of the half dozen contests, three needed overtime to determine a winner and four were won by the road team.

After the Vees grabbed a 2-0 win in the first meeting in Vernon, the Vipers won two in overtime away from home at South Okanagan Events Centre. Penticton won 3-2 in extra time on December 12th but lost the last two games in February.

Given how tight the battles were through the regular season, fans should buckle up for a fun ride in the Interior Conference Finals.

What makes it even more fun is the plethora of talent and depth at both ends of the rink. Vernon is led by the Jones twins, Connor and Kellen, who came alive late in the semi-final win over Quesnel to combine for six goals and 10 assists. Connor Jones averaged 1.5 points per game against the Millionaires to overcome a slow start to the BCHL playoffs.

“They are two guys who have a lot of experience," notes Harbinson. "It's their fourth year in the playoffs in our league. One thing that comes to mind whenever you play against those two is that you have to compete -- and if you don't compete they`re going to beat you."

Forwards Rob Short, Sahir Gill and Cole Ikkala have also stepped up for Vernon with six points each.

Penticton, on the other hand, sports the two most dynamic scorers in the BCHL. League leader Beau Bennett and Denver Manderson can be a lethal combination whenever they’re on the ice, but the Vees also look to other players for secondary scoring. Garrett Milan and Logan Johnston have been key for Penticton, combining for 16 points during the playoffs, while defenseman Joey Laleggia is third in team playoff scoring with 10 points in 10 games.

“We’re going to have to have a killer instinct. Even though they’re the defending champs, we’re a darn good hockey club as well and have many different guys. We can’t rely on one guy. We’re going to need a full team effort. We’ve had different guys step up at different times so far this playoffs and we’re going to need that again if we want to get through Vernon,” says Penticton’s bench boss.

Special teams could very well be a deciding factor in the series, especially given the Vees’ BCHL-best power-play efficiency in the playoffs. They have been over 31 per cent with man-advantage opportunities, cashing in 15 goals on 48 power plays.

“Special teams might be one area that’s going to be big. Against teams that have been over-aggressive we’ve been able to hurt them on the power play,” Harbinson says.

For his part, Ferner feels that Vernon has to avoid costly turnovers in the neutral zone and limit the Vees’ chances to strike with the man advantage. The Vipers' penalty kill allowed two power-play goals on 18 opportunities in their series versus Quesnel.

“Every game was so close. But the telling tale here was their power play, which has been their M.O. all season. We have to be disciplined and we have to be physical, but we’ve got to stay out of the penalty box. We can’t give that power-play unit five, six and seven opportunities a night,” he says.

Series Schedule:

Game 1: Friday, March 19th - 7:00 PM, Wesbild Centre
Game 2: Saturday, March 20th - 7:00 PM, Wesbild Centre
Game 3: Tuesday, March 23rd - 7:00 PM, South Okanagan Events Centre
Game 4: Wednesday, March 24th - 7:00 PM, South Okanagan Events Centre
Game 5: Friday, March 26th - 7:00 PM, Wesbild Centre
Game 6: Saturday, March 27th - 7:00 PM, South Okanagan Events Centre
Game 7: Sunday, March 28th - 7:00 PM, Wesbild Centre

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