The views expressed are those of Will Bryant and not necessarily those of the VIJHL.
As we enter the final two weeks of the VIJHL Regular Season, a lot remains to be determined in the North Division. Five games remain in the regular season for both the Campbell River Storm and the Oceanside Generals who are fighting for the North Division crown. These two teams battle on the final day of the regular season which could make for the most exciting finale to a regular season this league has seen in years. The South Division seems to have been decided with the Victoria Cougars clinching the South Crown with a Peninsula loss on Wednesday night. The rest of the league knows where they sit in the standings and are awaiting the post-season to begin.
Both Campbell River and Oceanside have had their ups and downs this year, for Oceanside, the downs of their season coming more recently than their ups. The Generals have been 7-8-1 since December after getting off to a red-hot start to the year. Oceanside only had seven loses to their name through the first three months of the season but their physical, in-your-face style of play, seems to have stalled in its success. Oceanside has won four games in a row coming into the final two weeks of the season, however, three of those wins have come against the seventh, eighth, and ninth placed teams in the league. Oceanside has struggled this season against teams above .500 with only a 7-11-2 record (Victoria, Peninsula, Campbell River, Westshore). That accounts for all but three of their loses this season. They are 20-2-1 against the rest of the league.
Despite their recent struggles, Oceanside is looking the best they’ve looked in years, and it’s in no small part due to the exceptional goaltending they’ve received from James Brendeland and Jacob Sweet. Sweet had spent time in Jr. A and elected to sign back with the Generals earlier this season, giving Oceanside a deadly duo in net. They boast a former Medicine Hat Tiger at the top of their lineup in Dawson Heathcote and are deep both offensively and defensively. They have a rookie phenom in Cage Newans who has already spent some time with the Victoria Royals. That alone speaks to what Newans is capable of on the ice. Veteran players such as Landon Dziadyk, Foster Martin, and Aiden Sutherland give this team some much needed experience come playoff time. There’s no doubt that Oceanside is a talented hockey team, but for a club that hasn’t seen the second round of the playoffs in years, the question is can they make it past the first round, and if they can, will they be able to overcome the physical and mental hurdles to fight their way to a VIJHL title.
For Campbell River, they were attacked by the injury bug early and often in the season, and the VIJHL giant who have won the two of the last three titles seemed mortal. At one point this season, their team was so injury riddled that they had to reschedule a game with the defending VIJHL champion Victoria Cougars, because they didn’t have enough healthy players to dress a team. But as this organization has shown time and time again, they were able to overcome the adversity, and now they find themselves in a dogfight for the North Division crown. Since December, Campbell River, unlike Oceanside, has flourished going 13-4-1.
Despite their ups and downs, the two teams have nearly identical records over the last ten games; Oceanside 6-4, Campbell River 5-4-1. These teams meet once more, on Saturday February 22nd in Oceanside.
The Nanaimo Buccaneers will record their first season in franchise history with a record below .500. That is a staggering stat that speaks to the success that this Bucs organization has been able to sustain since their inception. The Bucs, much like Kerry Park, have no clue if they will face Oceanside or Campbell River in the first round of the playoffs. Nanaimo is an odd team this year. They are a .500 team at home (9-8-2-3) but are tied for the second worst record on the road (3-13-4-2) in the league. Brendan Rogers (15g, 21a) is the teams leading scorer but their most important player is their nineteen-year old netminder Austin Dendl. Dendl has appeared in thirty-six of the Bucs forty-four games and it seems the team goes as Dendl goes. The Bucs will go as far in the playoffs as their goaltending can take them, and with either Campbell River or Oceanside waiting in the first round, an uphill battle awaits the Buccaneers.
The Comox Valley Glacier Kings will be the only team to miss the playoffs for the third consecutive year. They are led by Head Coach Jeff Dubois and netminder Jacob Bennet. Comox is not a flashy team offensively nor are they expected to be. Expectations for Comox were low coming into the season and not recording their first win of 2019 until November solidified that. However, this team is having their most prosperous season in the last three years. They are one win away from reaching their combined win total over the last two seasons (8) and are giving opposing teams a much harder time than they had in previous seasons. Over the last two season there has been a lot of turnover behind the bench and on the roster of the G-Kings. That doesn’t seem the case going forward. They seem to have found their “guy” in Jeff Dubois and have a goaltender capable of winning them games. Their team is playing with a purpose and with an identity, and things are looking up for a Comox team which has not had much to be excited about over the past two seasons. If this trend continues into next season, Comox could be a playoff team for the first time since the 2016-17 campaign.
Things appear much clearer in the South. The Cougars have clinched first place in the South division and third through fifth in the division has already been determined with Westshore, Saanich, and Kerry Park occupying those spots in that order.
Saanich had been trying to catch Westshore for the last month and a half of the regular season but ultimately was too far back to gain enough traction to surpass Westshore in the standings. Saanich is a very interesting team. They are a competitive team at home with a record of 12-5-5 but on the road, they are a lackluster 6-13-2. With the playoffs fast approaching, Saanich has not proven that they are capable of stealing a game in another teams’ barn. Their style of play is too dependent on the smaller size of their home arena, and when it comes to playing in other barns, they are like a completely different team. On the other hand, Saanich has lost three games to Comox this season but have also beat teams like Victoria and Peninsula at home. Their only impressive road win came against Campbell River back in January. Other than that, they have struggled against above .500 teams on the road. They are inconsistent in their play and with a first-round matchup against the Cougars looming, it is shaping up to be a first-round exit for this Saanich club.
The Victoria Cougars are probably the odds-on favourite to repeat as VIJHL champs. They have an explosive offense and a volatile special teams led by Bryce Irwin and Evan Easton. Both of these players sit amongst the top five of league scoring and are key leaders on this Cougar team. They have a candidate for VIJHL Goalie of the Year in Brett Anderson and a great replacement for him in Jonah Chambers. Two years ago, they made a trade with the Peninsula Panthers to acquire Marshal Brown, and this season more than any, it’s clear why they made that trade. Brown is a proven goal scorer who has plenty of post-season experience including winning the title last year with this Cougar team. There is extraordinary depth up and down the Cougars lineup with players like Davis Frank, Zach Guerra, and Cam LeSergent posing constant scoring threats. They play great defense but are certainly an offense-first team.
For the Westshore Wolves, they hold a similar home/away split like Saanich. Westshore is an impressive 17-4-1 at home but a lackluster 8-10-3 on the road. Westshore has two notable road wins, in Oceanside and in Campbell River. Both of those wins came back in September and they have struggled on the road against above .500 teams much like Saanich. Chase Klassen (31g, 20a) is all but a shoo-in for rookie of the year in the VIJHL and they have an exciting young tandem in between the pipes with Dalan Marleau (‘01) and Jacob Haydar (‘02). If these two netminders don’t make the jump to Jr. A next season, Westshore will find themselves in the enviable position of having two great young goaltenders, both with a year of experience under their belts.
They have a likely playoff matchup with the Peninsula Panthers on their hands and that is shaping up to be a tight competitive series. Peninsula has the best line in the VIJHL icing three of the league’s top four scorers, with a deep team up and down the lineup. They have recently added twenty-year-old netminder Andrew Rocha to split starts with Connor McKillop and give them two “win-me-a-game-tonight” goalies come playoff time. With the core of the Panther defense set to age out at the end of the season, Westshore can expect to face a determined Peninsula club, and that’s not something I think they can overcome. Despite their standout rookie, Westshore doesn’t have the same depth up and down the lineup that Peninsula does and in the playoffs that is HUGE. Peninsula boasts an impressive 18-3 record at home this season with all three loses coming to the Victoria Cougars. Pair that with Westshore’s’ less than ideal road record, an upset in the first round for Westshore seems unlikely.
The Kerry Park Islanders are in a unique position in the South division. They, unlike the other four teams in their division, do not know who they are going to face in the first round of the playoffs. With the way the post-season is configured, Kerry Park will face the winner of the North division as the Comox Valley Glacier Kings are the last placed team overall in the VIJHL and will miss the playoffs. Kerry Park is led by twenty-year-old rookie Parker Bergstrom (21g, 26a) who leads his team in points and leads the league in PIMS (175). He is followed in team scoring by fellow rookies and Anaheim natives Cory Mater and Alex Villa. They have Spencer Deakin, formerly of the Campbell River Storm, Oceanside Generals and the Nanaimo Buccaneers, along-side Nick Haisell in between the pipes, two very formidable goalies. Where Kerry Park needs to improve is defensively. They hold the second worst goal differential in the league having scored one hundred goals and allowed two hundred. This year against Peninsula they have allowed an average of fifty shots per/game. Kerry Park spends too much time in their own zone and lacks an identity offensively. They have the pieces to make a push but are still a year or two away. Despite a big win in Campbell River to kick off February, I do not see Kerry Park being able to sustain that success to take four of seven games in a playoff series.
Who will win the North Division? That’s the big question around the league right now. But regardless of who wins the North, the potential playoff matchups are mouth-watering in the first round, and we could have the most competitive playoffs we’ve seen in years in the VIJHL.
The views expressed are those of Will Bryant and not necessarily those of the VIJHL.