The Island’s top two junior B hockey teams are going head to head this week as the Victoria Cougars meet the Saanich Braves in a two-game set.
The home-and-home series goes Thursday (Nov. 22), 7 p.m. at Archie Browning Sports Centre and Friday, 6:30 p.m. at Pearkes arena, and is as big a junior B matchup as it gets, not just on the Island but in the province.
“This is a great test for us, a battle, a war,” Braves coach Brad Cook said. “Of course two of our four losses are to the Cougars. We can match them at five-on-five, and have outplayed them even, but you have to stay away from their powerplay.”
In 23 games, the Cougars (22-0-0-1) have picked up every possible point but one, losing in a shootout to the Comox Valley Glacier Kings early in the season. That loss was rectified on Sunday afternoon, when the Cougars torched the Glacier Kings 9-3.
Next to the Cougars’ winning percentage of .978, the Braves’ .800, an unheard of pace in most sports, almost seems sobering.
This week can establish whether the Braves (16-4) are indeed on the same plane as the Cougars, or a shade below, as the winning percentages suggest.
Either way, there’s no denying the two clubs are head and shoulders above the rest of the league, and most of the province. Going into the two-game series the Braves are ranked third in B.C. behind the Delta Ice Hawks (.833) of the mainland’s Pacific International league, but that could change.
In the first meeting of the Braves and Cougars, the Cougars were kept off the powerplay and it was close, 3-2. But in the second meeting Victoria got a couple of bounces, and a 2-2 game in the third period turned into 6-2 with an empty-netter.
“We have to find a way to put them on their heels and force them to make mistakes. They don’t make many. The big thing for us right now is learning how to play better without the puck,” Cook said.
That, and not giving the referees a reason to make a call.
“(The Cougars’) powerplay will kill you, it’s something else.”
There are many similarities between the two inner-city clubs, which are separated by less than a 10-minute drive.
The programs both cross into junior A territory, with players and coaches committed in a way that was unheard of in junior B leagues back when they first strapped on skates.
The Braves top line features Ty Jones and Josh Gray, a pair of 20-year-olds with junior A experience. Jones is courted constantly by BCHL teams, and is surely NCAA bound. He’s also carrying a full course load at Camosun College.
Likewise, the duo of Brody Coulter and Sam Rice, who lead the league in scoring, are affiliates with the Victoria Grizzlies. But they’re not about to give up a good thing with the Cougars.
“At this stage, to go the BCHL as a 20-year-old rookie is a risk, you’re looking at being a role player with much less ice time,” said Cougars coach Mark Van Helvoirt.
“We moved five players on last year to playing scholarships and Coulter and Rice are among five more likely to find scholarships this year.”
The Cougars recently added 18-year-old defenceman Brandon Egli of the Trail Smoke Eaters. He was on the Peninsula Panthers for their 2011 Cyclone Taylor Cup provincial championship run.
The Braves also made a big move, landing 18-year-old Nolan Kinney from the Kerry Park Islanders. He’ll make his debut against the Cougars this week.
“Our games (against Saanich) go right down to the final minute, they’re a deep team that’s well coached and they bring out the best of us,” Van Helvoirt said.
The Cougars recently added depth the defensive corps getting 18-year-old Brandon Egli from the Trail Smoke Eaters.
Egli attended Cougars camp as a 14-year-old, played for the South Island Thunderbirds major midget team. He joined the Peninsula Panthers for their 2011 Cyclone Taylor Cup provincial championship run but asked to leave the Smoke Eaters this year, to return home and link up with the Cougars, which acquired his rights.
“The Cougars’ coaching staff runs not that different from a team such as Trail, it’s an A class organization. Everyone wants to win, it’s a real good group of guys, always happy, like a family in the room,” Egli said.
With two more years of junior eligibility however, Egli is keen on reigniting the interest of NCAA scouts for a Div. I scholarship. He played for the Victoria Grizzlies last week, and is looking for a way back into the BCHL.
The Braves made a key addition this week, picking up 18-year-old Nolan Kinney from the Kerry Park Islanders. Kinney was one of the final cuts from the Cowichan Capitals training camp and is a big, versatile forward with a scoring touch who Cook can move around in the top six.
Going to Kerry Park in the trade is Cody Short, a skilled player out of the Racquet Club who wasn’t benefiting as a fourth-liner, Cook said.
The Braves were looking for a top-six player, as it allows Cook to keep permanently move Andrew White to defence.
“White brings a real calming effect back there, and he has puck moving ability, which will help us in the long term.”