It seemed like the whole season was leading up to this.
The Nanaimo Buccaneers will face the Comox Valley Glacier Kings in the first round of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League playoffs in a matchup that has been long anticipated.
“Before Christmas, we kind of knew we were playing Comox,” said Jordan Levesque, Bucs team captain. “So we were watching them, keeping up with their scores and kind of focusing on them for that first round … I think we’re ready for them.”
With the Campbell River Storm taking control of the North Division early and the Oceanside Generals left behind in last, there wasn’t a lot of drama over the final weeks of the regular season.
“I think it’s hard for the kids to find motivation sometimes when you’re coming out here and playing games where essentially we’re just trying not to get suspended or get injuries,” said Dan Lemmon, Bucs coach.
So playoff hockey is exactly what his team needs.
“We’ve got an older group that’s been here before and we’re going to use some of our experience and some of the lessons we’ve learned during the season to find ways to win in the playoffs,” the coach said.
The physicality and intensity gets turned up at this stage of the year, said Levesque, and “it’s crazy how much better every team is.”
The Glacier Kings were a challenging opponent for the Buccaneers all year, as Comox won six out of 10 games in the season series.
“They’re a hard-working team; they’re a skilled team,” Levesque said. “If we work hard and beat them in the one-on-one battles, I think that’s all we really need to do.”
Lemmon said Nanaimo is more physical, and has the kind of defencemen who will win battles in a playoff series. The Bucs are confident in their goaltending with the VIJHL’s Top Goaltender award winner, Alex Orth, and they have high-end forwards led by Levesque, Trent Bell and Will McNamara.
“They’ve got a similar team as we do, with a couple of really strong players and then some role guys on their third and fourth lines,” Lemmon said. “I think we match up well against them. It’s going to come down to a matter of will, and a matter of the small things.”
The teams have met twice before in the post-season, with Comox eliminating Nanaimo in the first round last year and in the division final in 2013. Levesque said that playoff history is in the back of players’ minds.
Another motivating factor is that it’s the final year of junior hockey for a handful of guys.
“It’s winding down, your whole career…” Levesque said. “So we look to really bring it every night and make the most out of this opportunity.”
GAME ON … The Bucs and Glacier Kings play Game 1 on Tuesday (Feb. 23) at 7:15 p.m. at the Nanaimo Ice Centre. Game 2 will be Thursday, also a 7:15 p.m. faceoff at the NIC.