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Story and Photos by Christian J. Stewart (ISN)

March 8, 2013, Saanich, BC (ISN) – A three-goal first period, including a pair from Sam Rice, was all the Victoria Cougars would need to secure a 4-1 win over the Saanich Braves in VIJHL playoff action Friday night at Pearkes Arena in Saanich.

The win gives the Cougars a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven South Division final with an opportunity to wrap the series up on home ice on Sunday.

The Braves, already playing without their leading scorer Ty Jones, received even more bad news Friday morning, when they learned starting goaltender Tanner McGaw would be unable to play Friday due to a lower body injury that happened early in period three of Thursday night’s 6-3 loss to the Cougars.

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Saanich’s Sam McMullen would have a strong game for the Braves, rushing the puck often as he did here in second period action (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

That meant that Saanich’s Bowman Rutledge would get the starting nod in net, while Midget AA call up Jason Stewart was brought in to provide relief if required.

Early on, it seemed like that relief might in fact be needed, as the Cougars, sensing that the Braves were wounded prey, moved in for the kill and dominated territorial play, outshooting the Braves 13-5 for the period and jumping out to a 2-0 lead on goals from Brody Coulter at 4:33 and Rice with his first at 8:41.

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Victoria’s Sam Rice would strike twice in the first period to help the Cougars on their way to the 4-1 win (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

Just when it appeared the Braves would weather the Cougars attack and trail just 2-0 at the break, the Cougars struck again, with Rice netting his second with just 1:33 to go in the period.

The Braves would suffer yet another setback just moments later, when defenceman Jordan Groenhyde was called for a check from behind and ejected from the game as a consequence. With a 3-0 deficit and starting the second period defending the potent Cougar powerplay, things were looking very bleak for the Braves.

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Saanich’s Garett Kemmler skates to avoid the forecheck of Victoria’s Robert Zadra (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

Credit them however with not giving up. Like a cornered prey, the Braves had no other choice but to fight for their lives, and fight back they did, killing off the early Cougar powerplay and holding the Cougars to just four second period shots.

They would also get a short-handed marker from Justin Polischuk at the 12:36 mark to get themselves back into the game and would nearly make it a one-goal game just seconds later, when, on that same short-handed situation, Saanich’s Seamus Maguire had a breakaway opportunity turned aside by Cougar goaltender Evan Roch.

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Saanich’s Sam Johnston would do his best to screen Cougar goaltender Evan Roch on a Saanich powerplay opportunity in period two (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

Saanich would continue to battle hard and like they did in the second period, they played a disciplined defensive game and once again limited the Cougar chances in period three. At the other end of the ice however, the Cougars were doing much of the same, and despite a couple of mad goalmouth scrambles, the Braves were unable to come any closer. An empty net marker by Coulter, his second of the game, sealed the 4-1 win and put the Cougars one win away from advancing to the VIJHL finals.

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Saanich’s Nick Guerra lets the Cougar bench know of his unhappiness after being roughed up during a goalmouth scramble in the Victoria end (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

Game 5 in the series will go Sunday at 3:00 pm at Archie Browning Arena. No doubt the Braves, even without Jones and possibly without McGaw (who is officially listed as day-to-day), will bring everything they have to the table to avoid elimination. Their effort tonight was a sign that the Cougars may not have an easy time of it and if the Braves can top the Cougars on Sunday, Game 6 in the series would be back at Pearkes on Wednesday March 13, with a Game 7 if needed on Thursday the 14th at Victoria.