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Interior Conference Playoff Preview: Round 1

#4 Vernon Vipers vs. #5 Trail Smoke Eaters

Head-to-Head:

Trail won the season series 4-1 with one of their wins coming in overtime.

Top Performers:

Vernon – F Hank Cleaves (51 points), F Owen Kim (49 points), D Anthony Cliche (35 points), G Ethan David (.909 save percentage)

Trail – F Mathieu Cobetto-Roy (51 points), F Ridge Dawson (40 points), D Adam Barone (33 points), G Teagan Kendrick (.902 save percentage)

Breakdown:

The Vipers started off the season as one of the hottest and highest-scoring teams in the BCHL, but ended up cooling down during the second half of the year. Despite that, they managed to hold onto fourth place and home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Second-year Viper Hank Cleaves has turned into a go-to option for Vernon and was their leading scorer in the regular season. The addition of Owen Kim in the offseason has proved to be a fantastic add as well. Playing in his third BCHL season after spending the first two with the Langley Rivermen, Kim has fit in seamlessly with the Vipers and was just two points off the team lead. In goal, Ethan David has put up solid numbers in his third year with the team. He owns a .909 save percentage and four shutouts on the campaign.

On the Trail side of things, Mathieu Cobetto-Roy has turned into a top-20 scorer in the BCHL in his third year in the league. The 20-year-old also put up 27 goals this year, which tie him for sixth overall. Trail has also seen a significant improvement in keeping pucks out of their net compared to last year. The Smokies ranked fourth-worst with 214 goals against in 2022-23, but have improved that to 187 this year and are in the middle of the pack. As a result, they have improved their goal differential from -52 to just -1 this year.

 

#1 Penticton Vees vs. #8 Prince George Spruce Kings

Head-to-Head:

Penticton won the season series 5-1.

Top Performers:

Penticton – F Callum Arnott (53 points), F Billy Renfrew (52 points), D Francesco Dell’Elce (38 points), G Will Ingemann (six shutouts)

Prince George – F Killian McGregor-Bennett (38 points), F Owen Goodbrand (36 points), F Linden Makow (34 points), D Kai Greaves (32 points)

Breakdown:

The Vees are back-to-back Fred Page Cup champions, having won in 2022 and 2023, and will be looking to be the first team to three-peat since the Vernon Vipers did it from 2009 to 2011. Similar to previous Vees teams, this year’s squad allowed the fewest goals against with just 116 (2.15 per game), the third year in a row they have led in that category. A lot of that is thanks to their goaltending duo of Will Ingemann and Andrew Ness. Ingemann led all BCHL goalies in goals-against average (1.85) and shutouts (six) and owned the third-highest save percentage among qualified goalies at .919. For his part, Ness finished top six in all three categories as well. On offence, the Vees don’t have the same firepower as the last couple of years, but they still scored the fifth-most goals in the league thanks to a more balanced scoring attack, led by co-captain and second-year forward Callum Arnott and Billy Renfrew who finished first and second in team scoring. Penticton has just two players back from their championship team last year, so the new group will need to prove themselves in the postseason this spring.

The Spruce Kings, who are the last team other than the Vees to hoist the Fred Page Cup when they won in 2019, lost the season series to Penticton by a wide margin, but can hang their hat on the fact that they beat Penticton convincingly in their lone victory against them, a 7-4 final, which they led 7-0 after two periods. The Spruce Kings key players are almost all BCHL veterans who will look to use that experience in the league to their advantage against a Vees team mostly made up of first-year players. Prince George’s top-four scorers have all played at least once season in the league prior to this one, including Killian McGregor-Bennett and Linden Makow who are both in their fourth years with PG.

 

#2 West Kelowna Warriors vs. #7 Cranbrook Bucks

Head-to-Head:

Cranbrook won the season series 4-2 with two of their wins coming in overtime.

Top Performers:

West Kelowna – F Felix Caron (69 points), F Jack Pridham (49 points), D Isaiah Norlin (48 points), G Rorke Applebee (2.63 goals-against average)

Cranbrook – F Donovan Frias (33 points), D Joseph Blackley (32 points), D Bryce Sookro (27 points) G Braedyn McIntosh (.919 save percentage)

Breakdown:

West Kelowna finished second in the BCHL in goals scored for the second year in a row, averaging 3.91 per contest. A lot of that production came from second-year forward Felix Caron who had a monster season, finishing third in BCHL scoring with 69 points in 54 games and also third in goals with 31. Another key contributor for the Warriors this year was Isaiah Norlin, whose 48 points led all BCHL defencemen. NHL Draft prospect Jack Pridham also had a solid year in West Kelowna, finishing second on the team in both points and goals. They were backstopped by 20-year-old netminder Rorke Applebee who had the second most wins in the league.

If you just look at the standings, it would appear that the Warriors have a significant edge, but if you dig deeper, you will see that the Bucks got the best of the Warriors this season, winning four of the six matchups. Things look even tighter when you see that four of the six games were decided by one goal and two of them in overtime. Cranbrook really struggled to score goals this year, so they will need to rely on their defence and goaltending to try and stifle West Kelowna’s high-powered offence. Their best chance of doing this is through the play of their two goaltenders Braedyn McIntosh and Carter Capton who, despite the team’s losing season, each managed to put up a save percentage of .916 or better. The return of 2005-born forward Noah Urness should give the Bucks a shot in the arm on offence as well. He has piled up 22 points in 24 games in a season split between Cranbrook and his high school team in Minnesota.

 

#3 Salmon Arm Silverbacks vs. #6 Merritt Centennials

Head-to-Head:

Salmon Arm won the season series 3-1-0-1.

Top Performers:

Salmon Arm – D Tristan Allen (46 points), F Isaac Lambert (40 points), F Cole Cooksey (35 points), G Eli Pulver (.924 save percentage)

Merritt – F Michael Felsing (58 points), F Jaxson Murray (42 points), D Kiernan Poulin (25 points), G Andrew Ballantyne (.902 save percentage)

Breakdown:

With a slight edge in the season series and the higher seed in the standings, the Silverbacks should have the advantage in this series on paper as well. Salmon Arm was middle of the pack when it came to offence, but was an elite defensive team in 2023-24. They allowed the third-fewest goals in the league, thanks in large part to their goaltending duo of Eli Pulver and Ryan Grout. Pulver’s .924 save percentage ranked second among qualified goalies, while Grout’s .926 mark was even higher, but he fell just short of the minimum 1,080 minutes qualification. The ‘Backs are the only team in the league with a defenceman as their leading scorer as fourth-year blueliner Tristan Allen had a massive year for them, racking up 46 points to finish second in BCHL scoring at his position. The team’s top goal-scorers were Isaac Lambert and Cole Cooksey with 22 and 21 markers respectively and they will be relied upon to provide the same scoring in the postseason.

Merritt has had quite a bounce-back season compared to last year where they finished last in the conference and missed the postseason. In fact, this is the Centennials first playoff appearance since 2018-19. The team’s turnaround has a lot to do with their leading scorer Michael Felsing whose 58 points this year rank sixth in the BCHL, while his 42 assists are fourth most. The return of forward Jaxson Murray has been a big get for the Cents as well. The 2003-born veteran played for Merritt last year, started the 2023-24 campaign in the North American Hockey League, but returned to the BCHL partway through the season. He has 42 points in 43 games since coming back.