Too little, too late. That pretty much sums up the North Okanagan Knights’ first-round exit from the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League playoffs for head coach Kris Mallette.
The Knights gave up a pair of first-period goals, and despite scrambling to come back in the third, fell 3-1 to the Kamloops Storm in a series-deciding Game 7 Saturday night at McArthur Island Arena.
“Same old story – we didn’t play for 40 minutes and turned it on in the third,” said Mallette. “Kamloops did a fantastic job of collapsing and blocking shots. It was very seldom that anything got through to the net, and they were paying the price to get things done.
“A good job by Kamloops, but by no means did we do ourselves any favours.”
Mallette credited the line of Diego Cuglietta, Jacky Lu and Darcy Rai for carrying the Storm offence.
Cuglietta, who earned first star and was a factor in each of Kamloops’ goals, opened the scoring on a sharp-angle shot with eight minutes to play in the first period. In the final minute of the frame, Cuglietta tricked netminder Dustin Nikkel and the rest of the Knights’ defence with a sneaky short-side back pass as he wheeled behind the net, finding Lu unmarked in front for a tap-in.
Josh Wickenheiser, crashing the net, recorded North Okanagan’s goal after some good work down low midway through the second period. Defenceman Lee Muir earned the assist.
However, Rai answered for Kamloops less than two minutes later to complete the scoring and demoralize the Knights.
“It (Wickenheiser goal) was a big boost, but to give up a goal two minutes later kind of lets the wind out of the sails,” said Mallette. “They (Cuglietta line) carried their team for three periods. Their secondary scoring really stepped up for them.”
The Knights will lose Muir and centre Mateja Leko to graduation. Mallette was unsure how many will be returning for next season.
While proud of the Knights’ accomplishments, Mallette took a measured view of the franchise’s most successful season in its three-year history.
“Being in our third year in the league, and doubling our wins each and every year – from nine to 18 to 35 this year – it didn’t exceed my expectations. When I came in, I was very confident in what we had and what we could instill in them.
“I was happy with the overall year. Not the result we wanted, and had we been able to play consistent for the full series, we would have had a different outcome.
“I’m proud of the kids. They bought in, and it was a good experience for my first year as a head coach.”
In other KIJHL weekend playoff action, netminder Jack Surgenor backstopped the upstart Sicamous Eagles with a 47-save shutout performance as they eliminated the host Revelstoke Grizzlies with a 4-0 win in Game 7 Sunday night at the Forum.
Kitimat’s Connor Buick paced the Eagles with two goals, singles coming from Jagger Bowles and Tarren Cavanaugh. Brad Crump supplied two assists.
Sicamous visited the Storm for Game 1 of the Okanagan Shuswap Conference semifinals Tuesday night at McArthur Island. Game 2 goes tonight in Kamloops.
In the Okanagan Division, the Princeton Posse stopped the Penticton Lakers 5-2 in Game 7 Sunday. They will face the Kelowna Chiefs in the other conference semifinal. The Chiefs usurped the division-champion Osoyoos Coyotes in six games.
In the Kootenay Conference, semifinal matchups have the Beaver Valley Nitehawks taking on the Castlegar Rebels, and the Kimberley Dynamiters going up against the Fernie Ghostriders.