North Okanagan Knights clinch division title
There was no formal celebration as the North Okanagan Knights won their first Kootenay International Junior Hockey League divisional title Sunday afternoon at the Nor-Val Sports Centre.
The Knights grounded the last-place Chase Heat 5-1 to clinch the Okanagan/Shuswap Conference Doug Birks Division crown, one point ahead of the Sicamous Eagles.
“We were all excited, but we kept it calm because we have to play next weekend,” said rookie forward Colton Thibault, who earned first star with 2+1.
The Knights tied for third overall with the Kelowna Chiefs in the 20-team loop at 34-14-2-2. The Castlegar Rebels topped the table with 78 points, followed by the Fernie Ghostriders, at 74.
North Okanagan opens the best-of-seven playoffs Friday night at home against the Kamloops Storm, 30 points back and fourth in the division.
Thibault, one of eight players from Vernon and area, said a late-season flurry of wins pushed the Knights to glory.
“When we had that 11-game streak, we were persistent; we didn’t stop and we kept getting better,” he said. “We play a pressure system and we’re fast down low.”
Thibault finished with 16 goals and 42 points, fifth best on the team. He scored the winner, on a first-period powerplay versus the Heat, and added a shorthanded tally in the second period. D-man Mac Ferner fired his ninth goal of the year to open the Knights’ scoring, while rookie Matty Saharchuk registered his team-leading 32nd and Brandon Shirley netted his first.
Saharchuk, a 17-year-old out of Fort St. James, was recently listed by the WHL Everett Silvertips. Thibault likes Saharchuk’s skill set.
“You saw the potential and Derek (centre Andrews) works so hard that Matty finds a spot and he’s got a quick release and a hard shot.”
Levi Chamberlain (4th) equalized for the Heat, who finished with just 11 wins despite returning most of last year’s roster.
The Knights outshot Chase 55-20 with Dustin Nikkel taking the win and Jacob Mattes the loss before 300 fans.
Game 2 in the playoff series goes Saturday night at Nor-Val (7:30). Third game is Monday night at McArthur Island Sports Centre in Kamloops.