A record-setting season came to a sudden, painful end.
The Cariboo Cougars, seeded second for the B.C. Hockey Major Midget League playoffs after they won a best-ever 31 games during the regular schedule, lost 3-2 in overtime to the Okanagan Rockets on Saturday at CN Centre. The result, coupled with a 4-3 Friday victory for the Rockets in the best-of-three semifinal, eliminated the Cats from the playoffs and sent the Okanagan club to the championship series.
The OT winner for the third-seeded Rockets came off the stick of 16-year-old forward Spencer Hewson. Just shy of four minutes into the extra session, Hewson took a drop pass from linemate Justin Marreck and found himself with time and space in the high slot. Hewson fired a shot against the flow of the play and beat Cougars goalie Nathan Warren, who was leaning the other way.
"It's a shot that I've practiced a lot, going back across the body and trying to get the goalie off weight," a jubilant Hewson said after the game. "I'd love to say I saw [the opening] but it was a bit of a blind toss. It felt really good. This team deserves it. We've worked hard all year and these guys [the Cougars] have had our number so it feels great to come in and get a sweep."
The Cats won three of four games against the Rockets during the year and outscored them 26-8. But, in the two playoff games, the Rockets played conservative, defensive hockey and were more opportunistic on offence than the Cougars. Of the five goals the Cats scored in the series, only one was from a player not on their top line, that by Tyler Povelofskie in Saturday's first period.
After Povelofskie's opener, the Rockets tied the score 1-1 after Warren left his net to play the puck and got burned by his decision. Warren lost control to a hard-charging Marreck, who proceeded to bank a shot in off a Cougars defender in front.
After a scoreless, tight-checking second period, the Rockets went ahead 2-1 at 12:46 of the third on a goal by Brett Mennear. Liam Blackburn of the Cougars struck back 24 seconds later when he shot from right faceoff circle and clanked the puck in off the left post.
In overtime, Warren made a big save on Branden Wagner in the early stages but couldn't handle Hewson's against-the-grain winner. That play started when the Rockets forced a turnover in the neutral zone and reversed the puck up ice. The Cougars back-checkers didn't get to the trailing Hewson quickly enough and he ended the series.
"[The Rockets] really got that third guy in there and our back-checkers, all year we've had a problem with picking up that right guy," said Cougars head coach Trevor Sprague. "They came down and we picked up the guy late and he scored the goal."
The best chance for the Cougars in OT belonged to forward Donovan Law but he shot high and wide after a face-off win in the Okanagan zone.
In total, the Rockets outshot the Cougars 25-24.
The Cougars swept the South Island Royals in the first round but, with the loss to the Rockets, failed to advance to the playoff championship for the first time in four years.
"We had a successful year," Sprague said. "We're here for seven months and the biggest thing we did, we built another 20 guys. There's a pretty special group of guys in that dressing room."
Cougars captain Ryan Forbes, one of many Cats who will move on to junior hockey next season, said he was proud of the effort the team gave in the gut-wrenching loss.
"We played hard for the whole game and you couldn't ask for a better group," said Forbes, who will skate for the Nanaimo Clippers of the B.C. Hockey League in 2013-14. "There are a lot of skilled guys who will move on to bigger and better things."
In the playoff final, the Rockets will face the defending champion Vancouver Northwest Giants, who overcame a 3-1 deficit Sunday in the third game of their best-of-three semifinal with the Greater Vancouver Canadians to win the game 5-3 and the series 2-1. The BCMML final begins Friday, with Game 2 slated for Saturday and Game 3, if necessary, for Sunday.