The Castlegar Rebels are one win from claiming the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League Championship heading into action tonight (7:00) in Armstrong.
The Rebels have a 3-0 best-of-seven series lead over the North Okanagan Knights, who host Game 4 at Nor-Val Sports Centre.
Castlegar was relentless in all three zones Friday night, earning a 2-0 win in Game 3 at Nor-Val. Sensing the Knights’ energy levels draining, Steve Junker’s Rebels eagerly finished their checks and carried a pace the injury-riddled Knights struggled to maintain.
If necessary, Game 5 would go Monday in Castlegar, with Game 6 slated for Wednesday (7 p.m.) in Armstrong.
“We’re running on empty, but we’ve got a group of guys that are not going to roll over and die,” said Knights’ head coach Kris Mallette.
“I’m so proud of what these kids have accomplished and they’re never-say-die attitude.”
Mallette couldn’t help but be impressed by the Rebels’ work ethic.
“They’re relentless and a very good skating team, and they are very tenacious on their forecheck, backcheck… everywhere.”
After swarming the Knights for much of the opening period of Game 3, the Rebels were finally rewarded with a powerplay goal with 15 seconds before the intermission. Stuart Walton chipped a puck past second star netminder Dustin Nikkel during a goal-mouth scramble in front of 500 fans.
“The 3-0 lead isn’t really indicative of how the series has gone,” said Junker. “Every game has been tight. I’m very impressed with their team.
“You go into every game thinking you’re going to win, but to close somebody out is always tough to do.”
The Knights regrouped in the second period, using their speed and quick passing to test the Castlegar defence, but netminder Jordan Gluck was steady when needed to earn a 24-save shutout.
Brenden Heinrich added the insurance marker with five minutes to play in the second period when a Castlegar point shot got knocked down in front of Nikkel (30 saves), and Heinrich knocked it home before the North Okanagan tender had time to react.
Already missing key forwards Matty Saharchuk and Morgan Johnston, and puck-savvy d-man Dylan Bowen, the Knights are potentially going to be without blueliner Nathan Browne tonight. Derek Andrews is also questionable after he took a hard shot off the foot, but Mallette said he would likely grit it out.
Mallette noted there are 10 players on North Okanagan’s roster who could still be playing Midget. The Rebels have three.
“What they’ve done is nothing shy of amazing,” he said. “Even to be in this position is incredible given what they’ve gone through.
“If you’ve been around and seen what they’ve done, you know they’re putting it out there.”
The Knights had four powerplay opportunities in the third period, but by that point they were exhausted.
The KIJHL winner advances to the Cyclone Taylor Cup, hosted by the Comox Valley Glacier Kings, April 11-14.