The road to the Keystone Cup starts tonight.
The Rebels and Spokane Braves open up a best-of-seven tonight (insert corny Valentine's Day joke here) at the Complex in a rematch of last year's Kootenay Conference quarter-final. Castlegar is looking for some long-awaited revenge, after being shocked in 6 games by the Braves last year (in a series the Rebels led 2-0 at one point).
A deeper core laden with vengeful veterans is chomping at the bit to get the series started, as it's been known since late January that Castlegar/Spokane would be the first-round matchup.
Intangibles: The Rebels won the season series 7-1, the only blemish being a 5-3 Braves victory at the Complex on October 2nd. The last meeting between the two clubs was January 30th in Spokane, a matchup the Rebels won 4-2.
Here's a look at the two teams' leading scorers this season:
Ryan Aynsley 32-38-71
Mike Wiest 19-44-63
Stuart Walton 21-34-55
Anthony DeLong 31-22-53
Erik Wentzel 28-23-51
Rance Hughes 26-21-47
Guisseppe Dippolito 14-27-41
Jesse Collins 16-22-38
Uriah Machuga 15-21-36
Mitch Fowler 19-13-32
As for the head-to-head matchup:
Tyler Robinson 3-4-7
Erik Alden 1-6-7
Tyler Mort 2-2-4 (no longer with team)
Alex Ross 4-0
Cole Buckley 2-0
Andrew Walton 1-1 (no longer with team)
Garrett Barr 1-6
McKinlee Baum 0-1
Our Opponent: The upset will be harder to come by for the Braves, to be sure. Castlegar finished 39 points ahead of Spokane in the Neil Murdoch division standings, but with Eagles Ice-A-Rena consistently providing one of the toughest away environments in the KIJHL, the Braves, who have 10 returnees from last year's squad, could make it a really tough test, especially if the series heads back to Washington state tied at one game apiece.
My Pick: The Rebels boast one of the most powerful offenses in the KIJHL, while Spokane head coach Mike Bay has told me a number of times this season that his club's biggest challenge has been consistently putting the puck in the net. Spokane play a simple game, and if the Rebels can use their speed to break through what's sure to be a defensively-minded opponent, this series won't see a sixth game. But if the Braves can frustrate Castlegar like they did last year, history could well repeat itself. Castlegar in 5.
Broadcast Info: We'll have the webcast beginning at 7:30.
In the Press Box: Mike Wiest is out. No other injuries to report on either side.
Around the KIJHL: With the playoffs opening on several different fronts today, let's take a look at the other series in the league.
Beaver Valley (2nd, Neil Murdoch) vs. Nelson (3rd, Neil Murdoch): The Nitehawks dominated the season series, at least from a points perspective, winning 7 of the 8 meetings between the two teams. Beaver Valley's size plays to their advantage on the small ice surface in Fruitvale, too, with less room to move, and more space to crash and bang. I've said it before, I'll say it again, Rossland's Chris Derochie is the most underrated player in the division , maybe even in the league. Nelson, on the other hand, have even more injuries to deal with. Reports out of the Queen City state forward E.J. Moir is done for the year, joining #1 goaltender Darren Hogg on the sidelines, though sniper Gavin Currie did return last weekend. This series gets underway tomorrow night in Fruitvale, and could be the most even series of the entire first round. Beaver Valley in 7.
Fernie (1st, Eddie Mountain) vs. Kimberley (4th, Eddie Mountain): Sorry, Nitros fans, this one won't even be close. Fernie has hit double digits against the Dynamiters this season, and Kimberley's short bench will be hard-pressed to stop Morisseau, Abenante et al (though they did pull out an overtime win Saturday night). Fernie is built to win. Period. Fernie in 4.
Creston Valley (2nd, Eddie Mountain) vs. Golden (3rd, Eddie Mountain): The Rockets are breathing a sigh of relief at the thought of drawing Creston instead of Fernie (the two teams split the season series 4-4). Both of these teams can light the lamp, punctuated by Golden's Josh MacDonald and T.J. Fairall finishing 5-6 in the KIJHL in scoring. Creston Valley has the edge between the pipes and on the blueline though, and to me, that's where this series will be decided. Creston Valley in 6.
Osoyoos (1st, Okanagan) vs. Penticton (4th, Okanagan): See Fernie vs. Kimberley. Osoyoos in 4.
Kelowna (2nd, Okanagan) vs. Princeton (3rd, Okanagan): One of my picks as possibly the most physical series of the first round. Both of these teams like to dish out hits, but the series could also swing in Princeton's favour if Landon Andrusiak and Colten DeFrias remain out of the Chiefs' lineup. Turner Lawson is arugably the best 16 year-old d-man in the KIJHL (though Bryce Perpelitz and Shane Hanna might have something to say about that). Princeton had a nine-spot put up on them by the Lakers over the weekend, and will rely on Brett Patchett and Sky Buller to hold down the fort. Kelowna in 5.
Revelstoke (1st, Doug Birks) vs. North Okanagan (4th, Doug Birks): Defending Keystone Cup champs against a second-year club making their playoff debut. The Grizzlies can be beaten, but not by the Knights (Revelstoke won the season series 8-0). Two players worth watching; Revy's Luke Hildebrand, who gets a taste of playoff action for the first time after spending the better part of two years in Grand Forks, and North Okanagan's Shawn Holliday, who could be singing his KIJHL swan song in this series. Revelstoke in 4.
Kamloops (2nd, Doug Birks) vs. Sicamous (3rd, Doug Birks): Sicamous is in a similar boat to Golden, thankful they didn't draw the #1 seed, but they'll still be in tough against a physical Kamloops squad. Storm goaltender Lynden Stanwood led the KIJHL with 5 shutouts, a good thing too, as his team only had one 20-goal man this season (Duncan Schulz). The Eagles' Easton Bodeux is another fine 16 year-old d-man (who APed a few times with Trail this year), and his club actually outscored Kamloops this year (167 goals to 165). If Kamloops can stay in check, they should take this series. Kamloops in 6.
Summerland Update: The Steam have unveiled their logo. Check it out on the club's Facebook page.