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Penticton Vees score three in third period, end Spruce Kings' season

Two-time defending champions complete four-game sweep in BCHL Interior Conference quarterfinal

As the Penticton Vees’ triggerman, Zack Stringer celebrated his 21st birthday in style and his party on the ice doomed the Prince George Spruce Kings to an early exit in the BCHL playoffs.

The Vees winger jump-started the Vees’ offence with an early goal in the third period and he sunk in the dagger with his assist on Callum Arnott’s series winner to cap a three-goal third period for his team in a 3-2 victory over the Kings. It gave Penticton a four-game series sweep in the Interior Conference quarterfinal series Wednesday at Kopar Memorial Arena.     

“It shows we’ve been battling adversity all season and how we can battle back in games and now we’re rolling,” said Stringer. “It’s a bit smaller of a barn and it’s harder to play in, the corners are smaller but you just have to shoot the puck more and use your transition game more and it worked in our favour.”

The Spruce Kings’ two-goal lead evaporated in the third period and Stringer, who played in the WHL for Regina and Lethbridge, used his speed and physicality to make that happen. He finally solved rookie goalie Ryder Green with the 35th Penticton shot, just 34 seconds into the period, deflecting in a point shot from Francesco Dell’Elce.

The Vees tied it seven minutes later when Stringer’s linemate, Callum Arnott, gained the puck against the wall just inside the Prince George zone and he turned and fired off a low shot that went through the legs of Amran Bhabra and slipped through Green’s five-hole.    

On the series-clinching play, Stringer chased down the puck behind the Prince George net and dug it out for Arnott, whose quick shot fluttered into the net.

“It was nice to get my first series win,” said Stringer. “Going back to Penticton (if the Kings had extended the series) obviously we know our barn and we were confident but we definitely wanted to get it done here and not give them a chance to come back here.

“They’re a hard-hitting team, big and strong, and we’re a little bit smaller but we’ve got a physicality level that’s up there too.”

The loss to the Vees was especially bitter for the 20-year-old Bhabra, a five-year Spruce King defenceman who has played his final junior hockey game.

“It‘s a tough way to go out but every team is going to have this feeling except for one, and for the guys coming back next year they’ve got to remember this feeling and work hard over the summer so they don’t feel it again,” said Bhabra.

“We all worked hard, we all wanted it, it’s just some games we didn’t get the good bounce. We knew we couldn’t give up, we never wanted to give up.”

Despite being outshot 19-6 in the opening 20 minutes the Kings had the lead, scoring 3:14 in. It marked the first time in the series the Vees fell behind in a game.

Aidan Souligny, a 17-year-old defenceman picked up at the trade deadline from the Salmon Arm Silverbacks, let go wrister and Owen Goodbrand was there for the redirect, his first goal of the playoffs.

The Vees fired the puck from everywhere and their shots got through to the goal often, but Green, whose puck-stopping heroics in Game 3 Tuesday coming in as an injury replacement in overtime nearly paved the way to victory, showed he was ready for his first BCHL playoff start.

He was stopping everything fired his way and the 17-year-old’s rebound control was also excellent. Just once did he leave the puck exposed and that was a close call five minute in when it slipped through his pads and was laying on the goal line for Stringer and Max Heise and Stringer just as Kings defenceman Evan Bellamy cleared it away.

The Kings tightened up defensively in the second period and they did a better job keeping Vees shooters to the outside lanes where Green could see more of what was coming his way.

The Kings had the league’s fifth-best power play throughout the season and it clicked again for them late in the second period.

Kazumo Sasaki held the puck in at the line and dished it to Kilian McGregor-Bennett, whose shot pass found the stick blade of Scott Cousins in the deep slot and it found its way into the net for a 2-0 lead.

But their lack of junior A experience and inability to hold a lead proved the Kings’ downfall. Fumbled leads late in seven of eight games down the stretch kept Prince George in the Interior basement, which set up their first-round encounter with the first-place Vees.

“We blew a lead (Tuesday), up 2-1in the third and same thing today, it’s then difference, a small margin, it could have been 2-2 in the series,” said Kings head coach Alex Evin. “A little too much panic in our game. We’ve got to enjoy the lead, not worry about the result.”

Green was a standout in the last two games and that came as a huge relief to Evin when he lost his two starters, Charlie Zolin and Ryan Sanborn, to injuries.

“It was not an ideal year between the pipes, we used a lot of goalies and I don’t think our team save percentage was super high, but the guys who played in the playoffs they all gave us quality starts,” said Evin.

“For Ryder, he’ll definitely use this as a good experience. It’s not ideal, he wasn’t supposed to play, but he got two full starts and some overtime experience and it should help him be ahead of the curve in his future.”

 The six players leaving the Spruce Kings gathered after the game with teary eyes, posing on the ice for farewell photos. That departing group includes Bhabra, McGregor-Bennett, Kai Greaves, Alexis Cournoyer, JR Perdion and Ben LeFranc, who was injured and missed all four playoff games.

“This is a really special organization that did a lot for me as a player and as a person,” said Greaves, a native of Cambridge, Ont., who will play for Princeton University next season. “Every day we come to the rink and the coaches, GM, players all push each other to get better in different ways and I think over two years here I’m way better for it. It’s something I’ll never forget.

“We had a special group of guys. People say that every year but I think this is my favourite team that I’ve been on. Coming to the rink every day we made it so fun for each other, even through hard times, just sticking together, and I have a lot of good friends on this team and it’s going to be sad to say goodbye to them.”

BCHL playoffs

Interior Conference quarterfinal

Prince George Spruce Kings vs. Penticton Vees

(Vees win best-of-seven series 4-0)

Game 4

Wednesday summary

Vees 3 at Spruce Kings 2

First Period

1. Prince George, Goodbrand 1 (Souligny) 3:14

Penalties – None.

Second Period

2. Prince George, Cousins 2 (McGregor-Bennett, Sasaki) 15:01 (pp)

Penalties – Cournoyer PG (holding) 2:45, Reinhart Pen (interference) 5:24, Heise Pen (tripping) 14:11.

Third Period

3. Penticton, Stringer 2 (Dell’Elce, Rego) 0:34

4. Penticton, Arnott 1 (Pichette, Sorace) 7:24

5. Penticton, Arnott 2 (Stringer, Hellyr) 11:08

Penalty – R.MacPherson Pen (tripping) 17:38.

Shots on goal by

Penticton           19          15          7            -41

Prince George  6            6            5            -17

Goal – Penticton, Ness (W,2-0); Prince George, Green (L,0-2).

Power plays – Pen: 0-1; PG: 1-3.

Attendance – 803.

Referees – Bronson Tazalaar, Montana Wright; Linesmen - Rob Connely, Isaac McDonald,