By Richard McGuire
Special to the Chronicle
When hockey playoffs begin Friday, the Osoyoos Coyotes won’t be taking anything for granted as they face the Princeton Posse.
The Coyotes finished in first place in the Okanagan Division in the regular season and Princeton only squeaked out a playoff spot by five points, but the Posse will be hungry to stage a huge upset.
It’s the first time since 2014-15 that Princeton has made the playoffs and they’ll want to prove themselves, said Ken Law, Coyotes head coach and general manager.
“It’ll be a good series,” said Law.
Asked if he’s feeling confident, Law said it’s a “quiet confidence,” though he admitted he’s not as confident as in the past.
“You know where that got us,” he said referring to the confidence last year when the Coyotes swept their first two series, but blew the conference final against Chase.
In that series, the Coyotes won the first two games in the best of five series, but lost games three and four in overtime after Chase tied both games in the final seconds of the third period.
While such bad luck can conspire against a strong team like last year’s Coyotes, the main reason the playoffs are tougher than the regular season is the calibre of the teams, said Law.
“You’re meeting the best teams out of every division,” he said.
The Coyotes have made it to the conference finals several years, but only in 2010-11, their first year, did they go beyond that.
In addition to facing Chase in last year’s conference final, they also went up against Kamloops in 2013-14 and 2014-15 and North Okanagan in 2012-13. Each of these times they were eliminated.
Only in 2011-12 and 2015-16 did they fail to make the conference final.
In 2010-11, their inaugural season in the KIJHL, the Coyotes won the league championship.
The past two years, the Coyotes have opened the playoffs facing the North Okanagan Knights in the division semi-finals, but this year playing the Posse will be different, said Law.
“They’re a little bit more of a veteran team,” he said. “A few more guys that have been in a league a little bit longer. A little bit grittier, I think I would say.”
By “grittier,” Law said he means Princeton plays a more physical game.
The Coyotes’ strength, said Law, is their presence up front. He can put forward four strong lines who play “by committee,” working together, without relying on individual stars.
The Coyotes also have two “very capable” goalies with Daniel Paul and Liam Aitken, he said, and he can go with either one for any game.
Unlike last year when the Coyotes made numerous trades, this year there has been much less trading. Nonetheless, the team made several additions on defence, acquiring Nick Nordstrom early in the season from 100 Mile House, and more recently adding Sunil Sahota from Columbia Valley and Levi Lambert from Golden.
Cody Allen, a veteran Coyotes’ defenceman, only rejoined the team this year later in the season and has also been battling injuries.
Among the forwards, Jack McNamara was acquired late in 2017 from Revelstoke.
Although the team has suffered a few recent injuries, Law said the team should be back to full strength when the playoffs start on Friday.
Judd Repole, the team’s leading scorer, was injured for a long stretch this winter, but aside from a recent suspension that kept him off the rink on Saturday, he’s now back on the ice.
After Friday’s opening game, the best-of-seven division semi-final series moves quickly.
The Coyotes again host the Posse the following night – Saturday, Feb. 24 – and both games start at 7:35 p.m.
After a brief pause on Sunday, the two teams play in Princeton next Monday and Tuesday. Those games start at 7 p.m.
If subsequent games are required, they’ll be played Thursday, March 1 at the Sun Bowl, Friday, March 2 in Princeton and Saturday, March 3 in Osoyoos.
Meanwhile, other semi-final games in the Okanagan/Shuswap division start on the same schedule.
Kelowna, which finished second in the Okanagan Division, hosts Summerland in the two opening games.
In the Doug Birks Division, Revelstoke hosts Kamloops and Chase hosts 100 Mile House.
Asked whether he would rather face the Kelowna Chiefs or the Summerland Steam if Osoyoos makes it to the division final, Law said it doesn’t matter.
He noted though that Kelowna has brought back four Junior ‘A’ players for the playoffs – something Osoyoos doesn’t do.
“We like to leave our guys there,” he said.