By John Zaks
August 31, 2013, West Kelowna, BC (ISN) – Penticton is the reigning conference champ, and I guess goes into the year as the favourite once again. And don’t get me wrong, this division will be tough top to bottom. But the Vipers are looking very strong on paper, and they promise to improve as needed.
And of course, the Vipers are hosting this year, meaning the road to a national championship will lead through Vernon. These teams will play 7 times in the regular season and then potentially more in the post-season. So it goes without saying the Tribe will need to be able to beat the Vipers, and do it in Vernon.
Friday’s preseason game had a great pace to it, and certainly looked much more like a regular BCHL game now that clubs have most of their go-to guys in the lineup.
Sure, lines are still being mixed up a little. The Warriors switched goalies halfway through the game again (from Desautels to Myland). And the rookies were out there with the game on the line. But if this was a snapshot of where this team stands a week away from go-time, I think the Warriors can be happy with where they’re at.
The first 6-7 minutes of Friday’s game was ALL Vernon. The Warriors really couldn’t get out of their zone, and needed a few big saves from Andy Desautels to stay afloat. But things soon took shape, and the visitors began to get some pucks deep into Vipers ice and win some battles down there.
The line of Blackburn/Firkus/Hesler was where it all started, and those guys were in the middle of it all night. But the other units began to find their feet too, and there was some other promising stuff going on. Brett Mennear is finding his feet here, and I thought looked strong in both ends of the rink (on the PK too). Connor Bucsis had a good physical presence, too, helping out Brennan Clark in that department.
Overall, I’d say the Vipers were a much better team on transition on Friday, but I think the Warriors were the better team down low (and generated more offence as a result).
West Kelowna also looked very dangerous on the PP all night (and scored twice including the empty-netter) – which is an excellent sign at this time of year. And that’s the result of two things: Firstly, it’s guys like Firkus and Blackburn who have obscene amounts of skill and vision. But it’s also work ethic – with Blackburn, Hesler, Anholt and others winning battles down low. Liam Blackburn, in particular, will get a lot of PP points this year. I’m thinking Brennan Clark will be a useful guy on the PP this year too (you do need someone to stand in front, preferably with size and hands like he’s got).
Leading 2-0 after 40 minutes, the Warriors had to withstand a siege throughout most of the third. A disastrous start allowed the Vipers to get on the board a minute in (on a Dexter Dancs goal much like Matt Anholt’s tally earlier in the game). Vernon kept pouring it on for much of the final period, but some resilient Steve Myland saves and desperate defending allowed the Warriors to hang on – until Liam Blackburn’s empty-netter sealed it.
The teams will go back at ‘er on Saturday at Royal LePage, and that will wrap up the pre-season.
The Warriors are pretty much down to their final team now. Jaden Schmeisser is here now too, although I understand he’ll be on the shelf for a bit with an upper-body injury. But this club has only allowed 6 goals against in 3 pre-season games so far – so I feel like the defensive corps is solidifying nicely.
Just one more tuneup to go – and that includes me, with a test broadcast set for Saturday night!
I spoke with rookie Liam Blackburn after Friday’s game. Listen to that conversation here.