All is right in South Okanagan with the Penticton Vees again.
After the Vees reeled off their astounding record of 42 victories in a row, all of sudden the dominant bunch suffered a scare with a few losses in the British Columbia Hockey League.
The Vees could be excused when their lengthy win streak ended with a 5-2 defeat in the regular-season finale against the Prince George Spruce Kings on Mar. 10. Head coach Fred Harbinson rested a couple of his minute-eating defencemen in Troy Stecher and Mike Reilly, and No. 1 goaltender Michael Garteig was out with a nagging foot injury.
But there was cause for concern when the Vees found themselves tied 2-2 with the Chilliwack Chiefs in their first-round series last week. Penticton managed to rebound with back-to-back wins to clinch the series last Friday, and now will face the Merritt Centennials in the Interior conference final, a series that begins on Tuesday.
You don't want to heap any pressure of a bunch of teenagers, but they attracted attention across the country and in some parts of the United States for a streak that may never be broken. Anything less than a Fred Page Cup (the BCHL championship) and a Royal Bank Cup national title will be a disappointment for Canada's top-ranked Junior A club.
The victory string to remember began on Nov. 11 with a win over the Trail Smoke Eaters and lasted four months. The Vees finished the regular season with an incredible 54-4-2 record. They scored 334 goals, which works out to an average of 5.57 goals per game, and put seven players among the league's top-10 point getters.
In the other end of the rink, the defence has been solid as has been Garteig and capable backup Chad Katunar, who made 31 saves for his first career playoff shutout in the series finale against Chilliwack. They combined for a 2.20 goals against average.
"Everyone wants to talk about our skill and everything, but I think it's been our strong work ethic and a great mindset," said Harbinson, a Calgary native in his fifth season running the Vees. "Our guys haven't taken anything for granted. They enjoy coming to the rink day-in and day-out, and they want to get better. They have pushed our coaching staff to make themselves better.
"Whenever you think about going on any sort of winning streak - six, seven, 10 games, whatever it is - the first thing you think about is that you can't let your head get too big and get ahead of yourself. Even though we put a streak like that together we never got too arrogant or too cocky."
There were a few close calls during the incredible streak. A few third-period comebacks were needed. Two of the wins came in overtime, one with just 45 seconds remaining in extra time. There also was a game when four Vees had the flu.
They also overcame the loss of forward Connor Reilly, who suffered a left knee injury with six regular-season games to go, and a 20-game suspension to captain Logan Johnston to start the year after a preseason altercation.
But Harbinson's group persevered. He credits a strong leadership group, led by captain Johnston, Joey Benik, Travis St. Denis and Stecher.
"We try to manage things pretty tight here as far as making sure the guys are prepared for each game no matter who our opponent was," said Harbinson, named the winner of the Joe Tennant Memorial Trophy as the Interior conference's coach of the year.
"You also have to go back to our players again. We have a good captain, good leaders and they police themselves. We have a lot of guys in our dressing room who want to play hockey for a living and they never seem to get complacent.
"For us [with the streak-ending loss], we got a chance to reset for the playoffs. It was an emotion that we hadn't felt since early November, an emotion that brings certain things out of you. We found ways to win close games and that was a game we weren't able to. I can see a little different fire in their eyes."
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