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Story and Photos by Christian J. Stewart (ISN)

March 28, 2014, North Saanich, BC (ISN) – The Victoria Cougars used goals from three separate players and shut-out goaltending from Nathan Hargrave to defeat the Peninsula Panthers 3-0 Friday, thereby clinching their third straight Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League (VIJHL) championship, 4 games to 2.

Played in front of a capacity crowd at Panorama Recreation Centre, both teams made surprising goaltending moves Friday, the Cougars going with Hargrave despite the outstanding play of Connor Beauchamp Thursday and the Panthers going back to Game 1 starter Stephen Heslop, despite backup Joey Karrer being credited with both Panther wins in the series and getting the Panthers to the exciting overtime finish on Thursday night.

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Victoria’s Liam Carradine (right) looks for some help while Peninsula’s Grayson Vickers closes in (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

In any case, it wasn’t the goalie changes that made the difference Friday, instead it was the Cougar special teams who started the scoring off with a power play goal in the first period and who were key in killing off two first period Panther power plays and more importantly a four minute advantage in period two that was perhaps the turning point of the game.

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Victoria’s Cody Breitenstein looks for a way around the Cougars Jake Stolz (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

On that first Cougar goal, the Cougars would use their typically excellent power play puck movement to get the puck over to Wade Johnson, who was stationed near the face off dot to Heslop’s right, and he would blast a laser of a shot to the top corner at the 7:56 mark to give the Cougars the 1-0 lead. The teams would engage in a tight checking affair the rest of the way, with total shots being 7-5 Cougars, and that 1-0 lead would hold to the first intermission.

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Peninsula’s Matthew Sheeran drive toward the net with Victoria’s Patrick Webb supplying the pressure (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

In the second period, after killing off an early penalty to Des Bast for slashing, the Panthers would be presented with their best opportunity to even the score when Victoria’s Liam Carradine was assessed a four-minute minor for spearing at the 10:29 mark. The Cougar penalty killers however, along with Hargrave, were more than up to the challenge and kept the Panthers off the board.

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Victoria’s Sam McMullen (left), a key pick-up for the Cougars at the trade deadline, drives hard past the Panthers Des Bast (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

That penalty kill was a big turning point in the game, as just 17 seconds after Carradine came out of the box, the Cougar’s Michael Fretz would block a Panther shot and then streak unimpeded into the Panther end, wristing a shot that Heslop would get a piece of, but not enough, and it found its way into the net to give Fretz his 10th goal of the playoffs and the Cougars a 2-0 lead at 14:46 of the period.  

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Wade Johnson’s first period goal would be all the Cougars would need in their 3-0 win (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

Just over three-minutes later, the Cougars would strike again at 17:47 when they broke in on a 3-on-2 and after an initial save off the rush, Jordan Marciniak would bang a rebound past Heslop for the 3-0 lead. That lead would hold to the break, but Heslop would not return for the third period, once again being replaced by backup Karrer for the third time in a game in this series.

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Victoria’s Michael Fretz would make no mistake with this shot, giving the Cougars a 2-0 lead in the second period Friday (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

With the Panther fans in the crowd hoping for another exciting comeback, the task was made a bit difficult when the Panther’s Sean Buchanan took a roughing penalty at the end of the second period that left the Panthers short-handed to begin the frame.

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Peninsula’s Tate Coughlin would have an excellent third-period scoring chance on this break, but would be denied by Cougar’s goaltender Nathan Hargrave (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

While the Cougars did not score on that power play attempt, and in fact the Panthers had two great short-handed scoring attempts turned aside by Hargrave, it set the stage for what was to come, as the Panthers continued to get themselves in penalty trouble throughout the period, with a double-minor at 4:23 and then minors at 7:35, 14:08 and 15:23 that kept their offence from mounting any sustained attack.

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Victoria’s Patrick Webb avoides the forecheck of Peninsula’s Tyler Branzsen (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

On the latter penalty of the bunch, Panther Head Coach Brian Passmore had had enough, letting referees Mike Christians and Steve Brown know how he felt and being ejected as a result.

The game then went downhill fast after that, with the Panthers, down a coach and down three goals, taking needless penalty after needless penalty and having a number of players, including Tyler Branszen, Des Bast and Grayson Vickers tossed from the game for their unsportsmanlike behaviour.

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Peninsula’s Rylan Ball looks for an opening around Victoria defender Jake Stolz (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

The net result of all of that, was that the Cougars essentially kept the puck in the Panther’s end for the remaining five minutes of the game, easily closing out the 3-0 win and with the clock at zeroes, beginning the celebration, streaking off the bench and mobbing goaltender Hargrave.

The win was bittersweet for Cougar’s Captain Mark Walton, injured most of the season with a variety of ailments and in street clothes for the entire final series, but it was Walton and his Alternate Captains who proudly stepped up to receive the Brent Patterson Memorial Trophy and who then carried it on to the ice to be shared with the rest of his teammates.

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Victoria defenceman Garett Kemmler puts a text-book hip check on Peninsula winger Alex Milligan (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

The Cougars third VIJHL Championship in a row did not come easy this season. Runaway winners of the league by 28 points last year, this season the Cougars battled a number of injuries, as well as some tougher competition throughout the season to finish in first place again, but this time by just eight points over second place Comox and Peninsula.

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Cougars goaltender Nathan Hargrave, who stopped all 21 shots he saw, looks happily back at the clock as time winds down in the 3-0 Cougar win (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

Cougar’s Head Coach Mark Van Mark VanHelvoirt was pretty humble about his team’s win and recognized the road his team took to get there. “This is a pretty special moment for us. We’ve had a lot of challenges this season, had to overcome a lot of adversity with injuries. It was great to see the boys overcome those and get us where we are tonight.”

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As the clock strikes 0:00, the Cougars stream on to the ice to mob goaltender Nathan Hargrave and celebrate their 2014 VIJHL Championship (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

When asked what was a key factor in the series, VanHelvoirt quickly pointed to his goaltending tandem. “Our goaltending was key and I had no hesitation putting either goalie in for us. It was back and forth. Connor [Beauchamp] was huge for us last night and it was a tough decision to start Nathan [Hargrave] tonight, but it just shows the confidence we as coaches have in both our guys and that they had in each other. Connor’s first words when I told him he was not starting tonight were, ‘That’s Ok I know Nathan can do it.'”

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Cougar Captain Mark Walton (suit) accepts the Brett Patterson Memorial Trophy (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

The Cougars will now move on to the Cyclone Taylor Cup for the third year in a row, where they have lost in the gold medal game the last two seasons, a trend that they will hope to reverse this year. That tournament will take place in Nelson, BC April 9th through 13th and feature the Cougars, the host Nelson Leafs, the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League Champions (Beaver Valley Nighthawks are playing the Kamloops Storm) and the Pacific Junior Hockey League Champions (where the Richmond Sockeyes have a 3 games to 2 lead over the Aldergrove Kodiaks).

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The 2013-2014 VIJHL Champion Victoria Cougars (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)