It may have taken a decade, but the Kimberley Dynamiters are Eddie Mountain Division champions and headed back to the Kootenay Conference final after claiming a 4-2 series triumph over the Fernie Ghostriders.
A 5-2 victory in Game 6 in front of 1,156 raucous fans at the Kimberley Civic Centre sparked the Dynamiters franchise to its first appearance in the conference final since the 2004-05 season.
“This series could have gone either way. I give [the Fernie Ghostriders] full credit,” said Kimberley Dynamiters head coach Jerry Bancks Monday night. “We won by, basically, another one-goal game tonight. It’s kind of how it is and that’s kind of how the whole series was. It was a lot of fun.
“We’ve got a great group of guys that deserve that.”
Monday night proved another back-and-forth affair, just as the first five games of the series had been.
“It’s tough when you lose, but when you lose that way — Game 5 playing our hearts out, Game 6 playing our hearts out — you can’t be disappointed,” Ghostriders head coach and general manager Craig Mohr told Sara Moulton of the Fernie Free Press.
“In my 21 years of coaching, this is my best year. This is the best group I’ve had. I’m almost in tears with them because it’s over. It’s just been so much fun.”
The Dynamiters jumped out to a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes, with Eric Buckley and James Jowsey providing the markers.
But a veteran group of Ghostriders weren’t about to fold the tent that early in Game 6.
Cole Keebler got the visitors on the board 4:29 into the second period, dancing past the Dynamiters defence before picking the top corner behind the glove of goaltender Tyson Brouwer.
A matter of 3:15 later, Ghostriders defenceman Dan Burgess snapped a short-handed shot from the high slot that caught a piece of Brouwer’s shoulder before bouncing over the Nitros goaltender and into the net to make it a 2-2 game after 40 minutes.
With the game on the line in the third period, California native Keenan Haase awoke from his post-season slumber.
“He was a little bit on and off through the series,” Bancks said. “He’s got a little bit of California in him. You sometimes have to fire him up. I had a meeting with him, one-on-one, before the game and I challenged him. Boy, did he ever respond. It’s all a learning process for these kids. That’s what makes hockey special.”
With 13:35 remaining in regulation and the two Eddie Mountain Division rivals deadlocked 2-2, Haase exchanged a quick give-and-go with Coy Prevost before sending a wrist shot over the shoulder of Ghostriders goaltender Jeff Orser.
“This whole series [Orser] has been going low. We’ve been shooting low and he’s been blocking everything on the ground,” Haase said. “I knew I had to raise it. It just got up there, so I was lucky enough it got to the corner.”
The goal was Haase’s second of the post-season, first of the series against Fernie, and gave his team a 3-2 lead they refused to relinquish on home ice in Game 6.
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound native of Mission Viejo, Calif., finished the night with a goal and an assist, having set up Buckley for the first goal of the game.
“It’s an unreal feeling. Since I got here, it’s always been [about] Fernie,” Haase said. “When it got down to this final game, we had to put it all on the line and everybody did that.
“Every shift, they wouldn’t give you an inch. You had to fight and scratch for everything.”
Fight and scratch is exactly what Haase did. Upon scoring the go-ahead goal, the rookie pivot laid his body down to block shots and won a crucial face-off in the defensive zone in the final minute of regulation.
Off Haase’s big face-off win, Prevost put the game on ice with 55 seconds remaining, doubling his team’s lead to 4-2 with an empty-net goal. Braden Saretsky added another empty-netter for good measure, rounding out the scoring with four seconds left on the clock.
Despite not being at 100-per-cent health, Brouwer turned in another strong performance, steering aside 30 of the 32 shots sent his way.
“It’s an amazing feeling to have a group of guys that will play that hard in front of me when I go down,” Brouwer said. “It was definitely a battle back. I’m still not 100 per cent, but I have a great medical staff. Brody [Nelson] did a heck of a job coming in Game 1 and Game 2. He made a lot of stops that we needed.
“But just the character of this team — it shows. Series is up and down and we come out with a Game 6 win in Kimberley.”
Having been knocked out of the series after 40 minutes in Game 1 due to a lower-body injury, Brouwer returned for Game 4, back-stopping his team to three consecutive victories and a series win.
“That’s what makes hockey a wonderful sport,” Bancks said. “It is part of the game and I like to think of it as resiliency. The biggest thing with that is when you’ve got Jason Richter on your team and Tyler Kinnon and Charlie Dagostin, you play injured because that’s what character people do. I knew Tyson would battle himself back into shape as quick as he could and give us his best shot.”
The Lethbridge native leads the KIJHL in a handful of major goaltending categories to this point in the 2015 post-season, having collected eight wins and two shutouts, alongside a 1.02 goals-against average and 0.961 save percentage.
“Brouwer didn’t want to let us score any goals in the last two [games],” Mohr said. “Kudos to him. Kudos to that team. They play hard. Real hard.
“My hat’s off to them. I wish them all the best to keep going.”
All 1,156 fans at the Kimberley Civic Centre were witness to Brouwer’s brilliance once again Monday night.
“We were at home. We wanted to do it for the fans. They’ve been here since day one. Just amazing fans we have here,” Brouwer said. “It’s special and unique.
“It’s like having a seventh man. It’s 2-2 and we battle back. The fans never quit. They’re huge.”
Orser made 21 saves on 24 shots for the Ghostriders.
With the season coming to a close for a Fernie team that claimed the Eddie Mountain Division regular-season title, five 20-year-old Ghostriders skated in their final KIJHL games Monday night.
“As a new coach coming in, I knew a couple of them from before. From day one, they bought in to what I was trying to preach, trying to get through to them,” Mohr said. “My life was made easy by those 20-year-olds.
“In the dressing room, in the community — they were absolutely fantastic.”
Joel Burgess, Derek Georgopoulos, Aaron Neufeld, Sam Plaquin and captain Dylan Robertson all saw their tenures in the KIJHL come to a disappointing and abrupt end.
“Hats off to the Dynamiters. They deserved it. They outworked us most of the games,” Robertson told Moulton. “It’s a well-deserved victory for them.
“There’s a lot of emotions going through right now. Being with Fernie the last six years has been quite the ride and now it’s all come to a halt really quick. It’s pretty emotional.”
While Robertson and the Ghostriders have seen their season come to an end, the Dynamiters journey on and prepare to face the Neil Murdoch Division champion Beaver Valley Nitehawks.
The last time the Nitros advanced to a conference final during the 2004-05 season, they fell to the Nitehawks in a three-game sweep.
This time around, the series will be a best-of-seven.
“They’re a good hockey team. They’re well coached. They’ve been there before,” Bancks said of the Nitehawks. “They know how to win. It’s going to be important for us to belief in ourselves. That’s one thing we did tonight — we got a monkey off our back.
“They’re a good hockey team. We’ve got to focus on what we do well. We had a few guys really nervous [Monday] that didn’t play their game. We’ve got to get back to playing our game.”
There’s little time to rest as Game 1 of the Kootenay Conference final between the Kimberley Dynamiters and Beaver Valley Nitehawks is scheduled for Wednesday at 8 p.m. (Mountain) in Fruitvale.
Game 2 is scheduled for March 12 in Fruitvale before the series shifts to Kimberley for Games 3 and 4. Dates and times for those games have yet to be determined.
Kimberley Dynamiters goaltender Tyson Brouwer (#1) keeps his eye on the play as Ghostriders forward Aaron Neufeld (#22) cruises past Monday night. Brouwer and the Dynamiters defeated Neufeld and the Ghostriders in Game 6 to advance to the conference final. // Sara Moulton Photo