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Matchups set for first-round of CIHL playoffs

Terrace wins west division regular season title; Williams Lake takes east
Rampage forward Jarod Meers directs the puck toward the net during their 5-3 victory over the Smithers Steelheads on Feb. 3. That Steelheads loss set the stage for Quesnel to secure second place in the CIHL eastern division with a win over the Nechako North Stars on Feb. 4. (Seth Forward/Black Press Media)

What had the potential to be a three-way race for first place in the CIHL West over the last two weeks of the regular season was quickly reduced to two contenders on Jan. 27.

With just two points separating the first-place Terrace River Kings and third-place Hazelton Wolverines with the Prince Rupert Rampage sandwiched in between going into the second last weekend of the season, all three teams were in action Jan. 27 on the road.

Terrace and Hazelton easily dispatched their eastern division opponents on that Saturday Night, but it was a different story for Prince Rupert.

In Smithers, the Rampage, who have not fared well in other teams’ barns this season, scored just one goal as the Steelheads, led by John Creswell with five points on the night, put up six markers Jan. 27.

With the River Kings stomping on the Nechako North Stars 6-1 in Vanderhoof and the Wolverines cruising to victory over the Kangaroos 5-2 in Quesnel that same night, Prince Rupert was relegated to third place in the west.

The following day (Jan. 28), Hazelton was not so lucky in a tight game with the east-division leading Williams Lake Stampeders. Although Tanner Wort made it interesting with just four minutes left drawing the Wolverines to within one, the Stamps hung on to win it 5-4.

It was also a tight game for Terrace in Smithers. Tied at 2-2 with three-and-a-half minutes on the clock, Carter Shannon drove home the game-winner giving the River Kings a four-point advantage in the western division standings.

Hazelton, though, had a game in hand and that game was against the hapless Kitimat Ice Demons who went winless in 2022-2023 and had only managed three wins this season.

It was yet another disappointing evening for the Demons on Feb. 2 as the Wolverines stormed into the Tamitik Arena and put up five unanswered goals by the end of the second period. The only bright spot for Kitimat was a third-period marker by Jake Robinson from Josh Salanina.

Hazelton answered back with three more, though, including another one from Wort, who had already secured a hat trick in the game.

Wort’s four goals easily secured the league individual scoring title for the Hazelton forward. Although final stats were not available at press time, going into the final game against Terrace, Wort’s 22 goals and 22 assists (44 points) had him 12 points clear of teammate Ethan Browne and 17 ahead of third-place Judd Repole of Prince Rupert.

The 8-1 Hazelton win set up a Feb. 3 showdown with the River Kings in Terrace with first place on the line. Although a Hazelton win would have meant a tie for first, it also would have given the Wolverines the season series against Terrace and a bye into the western division final.

Barring overtime, CIHL fans could not have asked for a much more dramatic finish. In the waning moments of the game with Terrace up 3-2, Hazelton pulled the goalie and pressed hard for the tie. It wasn’t to be, however, as the Kings popped in an empty netter for the 4-2 victory and western division and league regular season bragging rights.

While meaningless in the playoff picture, the Rampage was also in action Feb. 3, seeking revenge against Smithers for the previous weekend, but this time at home. Rupert never fell behind in the game, however, opening up a 2-0 lead by the end of the first period.

Smithers drew to within one goal three times over the next two periods, but each time the Rampage had an answer renewing their two-goal cushion.

Up 4-3 with four minutes to play, Rupert’s Hunter Johnson banged home an insurance marker at 16:04 for the 5-3 win.

With the west decided and Williams Lake having mathematically wrapped up first place in the east weeks ago, there was still a lot at stake when the North Stars and Kangaroos took the ice in Quesnel on Sunday (Feb. 4).

Despite the Steelheads’ loss in Rupert the night before, Smithers had secured second place at 13 points with Quesnel in third at 11 points and Nechako in fourth with nine points. A North Stars win would tie them with the Kangaroos giving the Vanderhoof squad third place as it also would give them the season series against Quesnel.

Sunday’s game was a relatively high-scoring affair, but in the end, the Roos were two better than the Stars taking the final playoff spot in the east by a score of 7-5.

The western division semi-final starts Saturday, Feb. 10 in Prince Rupert, followed by Games 2 and 3 (if necessary) in Hazelton Feb. 17 and 18. The Rampage will be looking to erase the memory of last year’s first-round embarrassment of being swept by the Wolverines after finishing first in the league with a perfect regular season record.

In the east, Quesnel’s hopes of repeating as the CIHL league champions, will have to go through Smithers to get a shot at Williams Lake. The Steelheads will be in Quesnel for Game 1 of their best-of-three series on Feb. 10 with Games 2 and possibly 3 Feb. 17 and 18 in Smithers.

Thom Barker

About the Author: Thom Barker

After graduating with a geology degree from Carleton University and taking a detour through the high tech business, Thom started his journalism career as a fact-checker for a magazine in Ottawa in 2002.
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