Back in February and March, the bantam C3 Cowichan Valley Capitals overcame challenge after challenge on the way to claiming their playoff banner.
The Capitals went into the playoffs seeded fourth in the A pool, with the odds of winning not on their side, but they dug deep, played clutch hockey, and rose to the top.
First up was a wildcard game against fifth-seeded Nanaimo 4 on Feb. 29, which Cowichan won by a single goal. That set up a semifinal showdown against top-seeded Nanaimo 2, another one-goal win for the Capitals.
If back-to-back one-goal wins weren’t thrilling enough, the final against Nanaimo 5 on March 7 took the excitement up another few notches.
Early on, it didn’t look good for the Capitals, who found themselves down 4-0 after 20 minutes.
“They outplayed us bad in the first period,” head coach Mike Gray commented. “They outplayed us horribly. They jumped all over us. We had nothing.”
Cowichan started to bounce back in the second period, and trailed 5-3 or 5-2 — it’s been a few months since the game, and Gray wasn’t entirely sure — at the second intermission.
The Capitals made it 5-5 with a few minutes remaining in regulation, then Nanaimo went up 6-5 with two minutes left to play. Gray called a timeout, and the usual move at that time would have been to pull the goaltender for an extra attacker. The Cowichan skaters had other ideas.
“One of the players said, ‘Don’t pull the goalie; we got this,’” Gray recalled.
As promised, the players went out and evened the score. Gray admitted the tying goal was “controversial,” but it still counted.
“Our big right winger [Curtis Atcheson] pushed it toward the net,” the coach said. “The ref counted it. [Atcheson] said he put it in with his stick.”
In overtime, Donovan McCarter was able to take advantage of a lesson he learned from an unsuccessful scoring attempt earlier in the game.
“He had tried early in the first period to go to the goalie’s right,” Gray recalled. “This time he put it top shelf on the left.”
Gray was astonished by the 7-6 banner-clinching victory and the way his team came together despite losing a couple of players to injuries, including one of their two goalies, which forced Kayde DeClark to play the entire final, when the netminders were used to splitting games.
“It was a little unconventional,” the coach admitted. “But it worked.”
Gray was assisted in his coaching duties by John Mountain, Jason Closson and Brian Banks, all fathers of first-year bantam players, perhaps setting the stage for a repeat next year.
As it turned out, the bantam C3 Caps were lucky to get the playoffs finished. They were planning to play in a tournament in Victoria in March, but Hockey Canada shut things down just before it took place.
“It was kind of disappointing,” Gray said. “We had the banner. It was all good. We were going to have fun and see what happened.”