Not that he had any detractors, but Jake Stevens put an exclamation point on his naming last week as the B.C. Hockey League’s top defenceman by scoring three times to lead the Victoria Grizzlies to a series-clinching 4-2 win over the Nanaimo Clippers on Friday in Colwood.
“I just seemed to get a lot of space out there today, kept seeming to find lanes,” said the Napierville, Illinois native, who joked that he had never previously scored a hat trick in hockey.
With Stevens scoring an even-strength goal in the first period, then adding a power play marker and a shorthanded goal in the second, the Grizzlies built a 3-0 lead after 40 minutes and looked ready to cruise into the next round of the playoffs.
But the Clippers flipped things around in the third, outshooting the Grizzlies 17-6 and scoring twice to make it close. Jake Harris scored just 2:05 in, then team captain Spencer Hewson cut the gap to 3-2, scoring a power play goal with just over three minutes left.
The Grizzlies settled down and protected the puck for the final few minutes, leading to Jamie Rome’s empty net goal in the dying seconds that sealed the victory and wrapped up a 4-1 series win in the Island Division semifinal.
The Grizzlies advanced to meet the Powell River Kings in the Island final, which gets underway next week with games 1 and 2 at The Q Centre.
Putting away the Clippers proved difficult again, as it was all series, Stevens said.
“Their coach definitely doesn’t let them give up, they were playing for their season right there,” he said. “I was scared after they got that second one, but just happy that we could win. Towards the last couple of minutes, we really started to buckle down there and just play and protect the lead.”
Grizzlies head coach Craig Didmon admitted his team wasn’t as sharp in the third period.
“We started to change our game a little bit and get a little too defensive, and they were getting pucks in on us,” he said. “We made a few errors in the third, but were able to pull it out. So we’re happy; if we were told we’d win in five, we’d take it.”
Didmon agreed with Stevens about the grittiness of the Clippers in Friday’s game and throughout the series.
“I saw a team that didn’t want to go down. The hardest thing to do is to put a hockey team down and end their season,” he said.
He gave special kudos to Nanaimo defenceman Sean Buchanan, a Juan de Fuca minor hockey product who led the Clippers by example in the series, stepping up to score twice in the five games and playing solid defensively.
“He just led that team all week; he’s a 20-year-old and that was his last game, but this dressing room has a ton of respect for him. The team never quit and Sean was a big part of that,” Didmon said.
Over in the quiet Clippers dressing room area, a dejected Buchanan noted that both teams were playing good hockey come playoff time.
“We just had a lot of injuries during the season and some tough bounces, but we had everyone back for playoffs and it was just a bunch of one-goal games, it’s just inches,” he said.
Falling behind early gave the Clippers an uphill battle, but he felt good about the way the team didn’t go down without a fight.
“That’s kind of how we win, we forecheck hard, play hard, but it took us a while to get going. Unfortunately, I guess we just played the third period. We finished hard, so that’s good. I don’t think you make playoffs by giving up.”
Matthew Galajda made 25 saves for the win, while Nanaimo’s Evan DeBrouwer kicked out 33 shots in a solid effort. Cody Van Lierop tallied three assists for the Grizzlies.
The Kings will enter the second round with a little more rest than the Grizzlies, having swept the Cowichan Valley Capitals four straight in the other Island semifinal. A 4-3 win Wednesday night in Duncan gave Powell River the series victory.