PENTICTON, BC-The Merritt Centennials aren’t going to go down without a fight. Rookie Rylan Van Unen scored the game-winner late in the third period, as the Merritt Centennials upended the Penticton Vees 5-4 in Game Five at the SOEC Thursday.


Despite the setback, the Vees still lead the best-of-seven Interior Division Final 3-2, with Game Six Friday night in Merritt.


After nine goals were scored between the two teams in the last two games, they combined for nine goals in Game Five alone. Merritt got goals from Van Unen, Cade Gleekel, Zach Zorn, Stephan Seeger and Zach Risteau all scored for Merritt. Penticton responded tallies from Owen Sillinger, Mitch Meek, Jared Nash and Grant Cruikshank.


Mat Robson was saddled with the loss, surrendering five goals on 26-shots, and Jacob Berger picked up the win at the other end, stopping 31 of 35 shots fired on by Penticton.


Merritt struck first, five-minutes into the game, when Gleekel, from the goal-line, threw the puck at the net, which ended up banking in off of Robson’s backside; Gleekel’s second goal of the series and third this post-season.


The Cents’ ran into penalty trouble midway through the frame and Penticton made them pay. During a five-on-three, Owen Sillinger tied it up after getting his stick on Grant Cruikshank’s one-timer from the right-wing at 10:15. Sillinger’s second of the playoffs was the Vees’ first power-play goal of the series, snapping a 0-16 stretch.


Penticton was inches away from grabbing their first lead on the same power-play sequence but Duncan Campbell’s one-timer from the doorstep nicked the post on the blocker-side.


Merritt regained the lead on their first power-play of the game, six-minutes later, as Zach Zorn was first to a rebound in the Vees’ crease at 16:31. The initial shot from the circle hit Gabe Bast’s skate and sat in the crease, allowing Zorn to force in across the line at 10:15.


Penticton had more penalty woes early in the second and Cents’ grabbed an early 3-1 lead. After the Vees were called for a penalty 65-seconds into the frame, Merritt’s Stephan Seeger’s scored after his shot from the left-wing went off a Vees’ defender’s skate and in at 2:49; Seeger picking up his third goal of the series.


The Vees chipped away at the two-deficit and it was Mitch Meek who brought the Vees within one goal midway through the period. Right off a face-off, the puck was played back to Meek, who stepped into a one-timer that he blew over the shoulder of the goaltender at 13:01; Meek getting his first goal and point of the playoffs.


Merritt quickly responded, restoring their two-goal lead three-minutes after Meek’s marker. Mike Faulkner took the puck around the Vees’ net before firing a backhand pass out front, that landed on the stick of Zach Risteau. The Cents’ forward used the defender as a screen, snapping a shot past Robson’s blocker at 16:13 to put Merritt up 4-2 late.


Penticton swung back, making it a one-goal game, again, two-minutes after Risteau’s goal. Jared Nash was credited with his first playoff goal after Joe Leahy fired a slap-shot from the blue-line that deflected off his skate and in at 18:16.


The Vees built on that moment in the third period and were rewarded with an equalizer. Grant Cruikshank flew down the right-wing, then made a hard cut to the goal, and finished off the play by pushing the puck underneath Berger at 11:33; Cruikshank tying it with his first playoff goal.


However, Merritt countered, again, silencing the over 2,800 fans at the SOEC. With just under seven-minutes left, the Cents’ Tyler Ward made darted into the Vees’ zone down the right-wing, and fired a pass across to Rylan Van Unen at the back post for the tap in at 13:21; Van Unen scoring after being a healthy scratch the previous two games.


Penticton pushed in the final two-minutes, but despite an extended sequence in the Merritt end with the goalie pulled, they couldn’t muster up a tying goal.


Final Score: 5-4 Centennials

Shots: 35-26 Vees

Power-Plays: Vees 1-4 Centennials 2-2

Three Stars: 1) Cade Gleekel 2) Grant Cruikshank 3) Owen Sillinger

Attendance: 2,856


Notes: Thursday’s win was the Centennials first in Penticton since October 16th, 2013, snapping a 16-game winless streak. The two teams were a combined 3-6 on the power-play Thursday, after starting the series a combined 0-30. Merritt is now 6-0-0 in the playoffs when scoring first and the team that has scored first in this series has won every game.


Penticton will have another chance to advance to the Interior Division Final tomorrow night, Friday March 24th, in Game Six from Merritt; face-off is 7 pm.