The Peninsula Panthers last faced the Victoria Cougars on March 11 during the second game of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League (VIJHL), a contest they lost 3-2. While the loss put the Panthers in two-games-none hole, general manager Pete Zubersky nonetheless believed the team’s performance produced plenty of reasons to be hopeful.
“We were down 2-0 in the best-of-seven series but were coming home for the next two and loved our chances moving forward,” he said. “That is when the world stopped as we knew it.”
What stopped it of course was COVID-19, forcing the VIJHL to cancel playoffs. Nearly seven months later, the league started its new season, its 50th no less, on Oct. 1 under new protocols designed to protect the safety of all participants. Perhaps key is the creation of three cohorts that groups specific teams to play against each other to reduce the need for travel.
For the Panthers, this approach means playing the Victoria Cougars eight times, or after this weekend, six more times, with each team having won once. And yes, it is not lost on Zubersky that the Panthers find themselves facing their playoff opponent from last season.
“Our organization is looking at this as a series, unfinished business,” said Zubersky. “After last weekend it’s 1-1.”
Starting their season on the road, the Panthers found themselves tied at 3-3 halfway through the third period, when the Cougars scored two goals in a span of three minutes to decide the game in their favour. The two teams faced off again at Panorama Recreation Centre the next day. With the score tied at two goals, Tanner Wort scored the game-winner with little more than six minutes left on the power-play with Logan Speirs and Riley Braun assisting.
Head coach Brad Tippett welcomed the return of games. “It was good for everyone to finally get into a real game,” he said. “A lot of our players got their first real test at the Junior B level.”
As for the first two games, Tippett offered a mixed assessment. “We did some good things and some not so good things,” he said. “Both games were very close. Each team had stretches where they dominated and stretches where they were on their heels. Games early in the season are important for the coaching staff to learn about our team. We saw how players reacted and gave us some insight as to what we need to work on. Saying all that – you could see it in the players eyes that it was just great to be playing again.”
Zubersky certainly sees the season’s opening phase as a testing ground for the 25-player roster with 24 from Greater Victoria. “We have a very young team, 14 rookies in total,” he said. “After saying that, I think we can compete right at the top of the VIJHL and I believe we will see dramatic improvement from now until Christmas.”
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