The Kimberley Civic Centre will be home to a fresh slate Friday night — a clean sheet of ice and Game 1 of the Eddie Mountain Division semifinal between the Kimberley Dynamiters and Creston Valley Thunder Cats.
“What’s happened up until now really doesn’t mean a whole lot,” said Kimberley Dynamiters head coach Jerry Bancks Wednesday afternoon. “It’s what happens now. Yesterday’s news is today’s garbage. It’s a fresh start for everybody, every player involved.”
The Dynamiters finished the regular season second in the KIJHL’s Eddie Mountain Division with a record of 32-15-2-3 and 69 points, good enough for home-ice advantage in the first round of the KIJHL post-season. The Thunder Cats wrapped the campaign third in the division at 28-18-1-5 with 62 points.
In eight regular season games between the two clubs, the Dynamiters came out with a mark of 5-1-0-2, while the Thunder Cats went 3-4-0-1.
“[The Dynamiters] have been on a real good run in the last six weeks and they’re a real strong team on their home ice,” Thunder Cats head coach Jeff Dubois told Brian Lawrence of the Creston Valley Advance Feb. 17. “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.”
The Nitros outscored the Thunder Cats 27-20, but the season series saw three games require overtime. Within the eight-game season series, seven contests were decided by two goals or less, the only outlier being a 7-2 Dynamiters victory Feb. 3.
While the regular-season series went to the Dynamiters, the best-of-seven Eddie Mountain Division semifinal series is the one that matters.
The Dynamiters cruise into the post-season on the strength of a 14-1-1-0 mark in 2015, including a 10-game winning streak to close out the campaign.
“You keep your routines the same and keep doing what you’ve been doing all along,” Bancks said. “Obviously, it has been working. I’ve got a group of guys that I’ve got strong, strong belief in. I only hope they have the same belief in themselves.
“As a coach, you try to give them an environment where they develop as players and people. I’ve got the best group of guys I’ve ever worked with. I can say that in all sincerity…They all want to be together and create a special memory. That’s what playoffs are about.
“The hay’s in the barn. It’s up to the players. Hopefully they want to play for each other and do what it takes to be successful. If they do that, I firmly believe this is a group that can go on a good run.”
The Thunder Cats come into the playoffs having gone 6-3-0-1 over their previous 10 games and after a slow start to the season, have proved one of the hottest teams in the KIJHL’s Kootenay Conference since January rolled around.
“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 to see coming out of Kimberley,” Dubois said. “We’re trying to maintain our condition and be fresh and focused for when the series starts Friday.”
For the Thunder Cats, the preparation began Tuesday afternoon in Kimberley, as they travelled all the way from Creston to practice in the Kimberley Civic Centre.
It’s no question the Dynamiters and Thunder Cats are entrenched in heated rivalry, so the presence of Dubois and his crew in the Kimberley Civic Centre Tuesday afternoon was a curious sight with Game 1 not slated until Friday night.
“I thought that was interesting. Obviously, they have a good budget and they can afford to do that,” Bancks said. “I’m of the belief you don’t change your routines. You keep doing what you’re doing.
“I feel we’ve played enough in their rink that we know it. They’ve got quite a few returning players from last year that I thought would know our rink.
“I was kind of surprised to see them here [in Kimberley].”
On ethical grounds, Bancks left the rink as soon as the Thunder Cats hit the ice, ensuring his players left with him.
“You’ve got to make sure you respect your opponent,” Bancks said, “but focus on what you do. I was a little surprised they did that [practiced in Kimberley], but every coach has a different idea.”
Thunder Cats head coach/general manager Jeff Dubois did not respond to request for comment by print deadline Wednesday.
Whether Dubois’ idea pays off remains to be seen, but fans will get the opportunity to take it all in at the Kimberley Civic Centre Friday night at 7 p.m. when the puck drops on Game 1 between the Creston Valley Thunder Cats and Kimberley Dynamiters.
What to watch for:
Captain Jason Richter has been the heart and soul of the Nitros since the puck dropped to start the season. Having laid claim to the KIJHL scoring title with 39 goals and 70 points, Kimberley’s captain will need to be at his best if the Dynamiters are to come out of the first round.
Secondary scoring will need to come from the likes of Braden Saretsky, Coy Prevost, Lincoln Lane, Keenan Haase. As good as Richter is, he isn’t a one-man team.
Mix in Sawyer Hunt, Jared Marchi and Jordan Roy, and the Nitros have depth to envy. All three had their seasons shortened due to injury, but shouldn’t be ignored for their two-way play.
Carson Cartwright led the charge offensively for the Thunder Cats with 31 goals 61 points, while Alec Wilkinson proved a danger set-up man with 40 assists and 51 points.
After coming to the Creston Valley via the Westshore Wolves of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League, Kyle Richter provided a strong influx up front with 13 goals and 31 points through 23 games.
It seems as though anytime you look to the net, Thunder Cats captain Marcel Fuchs is parked on the doorstep causing problems for the opposition. With Connor Ward providing 18 goals worth of offense, Creston Valley’s depth up front is nothing to turn a nose up at.
Jordan Busch has been a stalwart on the backend for the Dynamiters this season. Though he only missed four games, his absence was noticeable in those outings. With eight goals and 45 points, Busch quarterbacks the power play and fuels the transition game.
Since joining the Nitros at the trade deadline via the Okotoks Oilers of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, Justin Meier has provided a hard-nosed presence previously missing from the lineup. In 12 games, Meier racked up 84 minutes in penalties, and managed to post three goals and three assists.
In between Busch and Meier sit a strong supporting cast featuring the likes of Jonas Gordon, James Jowsey, Rory Mallard, Tyler Kinnon and Charles Dagostin. All year, Bancks praised this group for their character and it’s that sort of character that can often be the difference-maker in a tight-checking series.
A pair of 18-year-olds lead the Thunder Cats on the backend, with KIJHL rookie Austin Steger and Maverick Lynes eating up significant minutes.
Steger led the Thunder Cats with 10 goals from the blue-line, while Lynes tallied 23 assists as the puck-mover.
Solid one-two punches between the pipes is the name of the game in this series.
Tyson Brouwer leads the Nitros into battle. The Lethbridge native is known for making the big save when the game is on the line. He came on in relief of Jeremy Mousseau in last year’s series between the Dynamiters and Thunder Cats. Brouwer wrapped the regular season top-five in the KIJHL in wins (25, second), minutes played (2,173, third) and goals-against average (2.37, fourth).
Acquired at the trade deadline from the Kamloops Storm in exchange for future considerations, Brody Nelson has used his big body to backstop the Dynamiters to a handful of big victories. Should Brouwer falter, life doesn’t get much easier for scorers with Nelson in net.
Brock Lefebvre carried the bulk of the workload during the regular season, going 13-17-1-0 with a 3.29 GAA and 0.906 save percentage, and was between the pipes for all three of his team’s victories over the Dynamiters.
Backup Mitchell Martell was strong in relief of Lefebvre through the season, wrapping the campaign with a 13-5-1-0 record on the strength of a 2.69 GAA and 0.910 save percentage.