The Beaver Valley Nitehawks will ice an all but full lineup when they begin their defence of the KIJHL championship against the Castlegar Rebels tonight (Friday) at the Castlegar Rec Complex.
The Murdoch Division semifinal is the first time in three years that the Nitehawks face off against the Rebels in a KIJHL playoff series, while the Nelson Leafs host the Grand Forks Border Bruins in the other semifinal.
In 2015, the Nitehawks rolled over the Rebels in four straight as the number-1 seed in the Neil Murdoch Division, and had the same result the previous year in the opening round. While the Hawks would like to duplicate those results this year, Castlegar is the higher #2 seed and a presumed favourite in Round 1 of the Murdoch series.
“We know that both Castlegar and Nelson are teams that finished ahead of us, they’re both really good teams,” said Nitehawks coach Terry Jones. “But I’m optimistic … you get some momentum in the playoffs, you never know how far things can go.”
For Castlegar’s head coach Bill Rotheisler, last year was a valuable lesson, when the second-seeded Rebels were bounced in six games by the third-seeded Leafs in the first round.
“We were the top scoring team in the league last year and when we came in to play Nelson they did a great job defensively against us and they were able to keep us to the perimeter, and a lot of the fancy stuff that was working against the other teams, obviously wasn’t working against Nelson,” he told the Castlegar News following the practice.
The Nitehawks played their best against the Murdoch’s two top teams this season, and won the head-to-head matchups with a 5-3 record against both the Rebels and the Leafs. Despite finishing in third-place, four points behind the Rebels and 12 back of Nelson, B.V. is heading into the series with confidence, even though it’s the first time since 2010 that the Hawks won’t have home-ice advantage in the first round.
“Home ice does (make a difference), but we don’t have it, so I’m going to say it doesn’t,” said Jones. “But honestly when we approach any kind of playoff, once you get into the grind of the game, it doesn’t matter where you are.”
Having the home crowd behind you is generally a bonus, and owning the last line change often critical in close games, but for Rotheisler and the Rebels, home-ice only counts if the team uses it to its advantage.
“Basically the season is trying to get home-ice advantage,” said Rotheisler. “You have 47 games where you try to get home-ice advantage, so we were successful there and we’re proud of that, but also again on the same token, we had home-ice advantage last year and we lost in six.”
The Nitehawks will be as close to healthy as they’ve been all year come game-time Friday night in Castlegar, and although they will miss defenceman Karsten Jang, who is out for the season, B.V. will have top d-men Jake Yuris and Kevan McBean back in the lineup for playoffs.
Castlegar likely will be without Evan Della Paolera who suffered an injury last week in a game against the Leafs, and Tanner Costa, Brandon Costa, and Shawn Campbell skated this week but are questionable.
Ed Lindsay leads the Rebels in scoring with 38 goals and 75 points, and along with Chris Breeze and John Moeller, form the core of Castlegar’s offensive power grid, while veteran blue-liner Vince Bitonti is a defensive force counting 53 points and 127 penalty minutes in 40 games.
When the Hawks ice a full roster, their greatest strength is their depth, with three more-than-capable lines led by B.V. captain Sam Swanson, and veterans Nolan Percival, Dylan Heppler and Jaxen Gemmell, and, with Yuris and McBean healthy, a strong back end.
The series may come down to goaltending, and both teams boast solid puckstoppers in Tanner Douglas (2.16 GA, .916 save percentage) and Curt Doyle (2.70 GA, .911 SP) for the Rebels, and Owen Sikkes and Liam Coulter for the Nitehawks.
Sikkes played well throughout the first half of the season, until injury sidelined him in December, but Coulter stepped up and was stellar in relief. Sikkes boasts a 2.40 goals against and a .917 save percentage over 26 matches, while Coulter posted a 2.77 GA and .906 save percentage in 23 games.
“We’re unsure of what we’re going to do at this point,” said Jones. “Owen’s come back and he’s come back quite strong. He played well in his last game against Nelson, and it was great to see him with that overtime win. As a coaching staff, we’ll determine what we do going forward, but at the same time, Liam had a terrific year and won a lot of games for us when Owen was sick and hurt. So it’s great to know we have two guys that can do the job.”
Castlegar hasn’t beaten B.V. in the playoffs since 2013 in Game 7 of the division final, so either the Rebels are due or B.V. has momentum on their side. In either case, every post-season series between the two teams promises an exciting and intense affair. Rivalries exist for a reason, and fans on both sides will be the winners.
“When we’re playing in the carpool division, Castlegar and Nelson, it’s not like we have a lot of travel so it’s not a huge difference, which is usually the biggest part of being on the road,” said Jones. “I think our fans travel really well – so we look forward to a great matchup with them (the Rebels).”
The puck drop between the Rebels and Nitehawks goes at 7 p.m. on Friday at the Casltegar Rec Complex, and at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. Games 3 and 4 of the best-of-seven series moves to the Hawks Nest on Monday and Tuesday with the face offs at 7 p.m.