Game Recap: Bucks open season with win in Merritt

📸: Dale Fletcher / Cranbrook Bucks

The Cranbrook Bucks opened the 2022-23 BC Hockey League regular season, their second full season in the league, by paying a visit to the Merritt Centennials on Friday night.

Cranbrook carried a 4-0-1 all-time record against the Centennials into the opening night contest — although the Bucks were a modest 1-0-1 in a pair of games played at the Nicola Valley Memorial Arena.

The visitors got off to a strong start again on Friday, and just past the midway point of the opening frame, Cranbrook’s top line connected for the first goal of the season.

Luke Pfoh was able to finish a nice play on the backhand following a nifty feed from newly named alternate captain Kellan Hjartarson to open the scoring.

Pfoh’s tally put the Bucks up 1-0 at 10:36 of the first period, with Hjartarson getting the lone assist on the goal.

Just over four minutes later, Cranbrook was able to extend the lead courtesy of a defender who carried his strong play from exhibition action right into the regular season.

Jack Henry was able to sneak a wrist shot past Merritt net-minder Hayden Dunford from the side boards for his first BC Hockey League goal.

Henry’s unassisted tally put Cranbrook up 2-0 at 14:45 of the first period, and helped swing momentum heavily in the Bucks’ favour.

A quick-strike offense was something Cranbrook established during its 3-0-1 preseason, and it wouldn’t take long for another veteran returnee to score a quick add-on goal.

Third-year forward Jarrod Smith found the puck out of a neutral zone scrum, skated it into Centennial’s territory, and fired it home with a wicked wrist shot.

Smith’s first of the season and seventh in the BCHL was assisted by Donovan Frias and Nick Peluso — who each collected their first point in the league on the play.

The goal came at 16:43 — just 1:57 after Henry’s tally — giving Cranbrook a 3-0 lead late in the opening frame.

The Bucks outshot Merritt by a 16-8 margin in the period, en route to taking a three-goal advantage into the first intermission.

The game would turn into a much more evenly-played affair in the second period, but not before Cranbrook took a commanding lead.

Not long after the 5-minute mark of the middle frame, the Bucks found themselves on the powerplay, and were promptly able to capitalize on the man-advantage opportunity.

Just 13 seconds into the PP, forward Jack Silich became the second Buck to score his first BCHL goal on the night.

Silich’s milestone marker at 5:12 was assisted by veteran defenders Rhys Bentham and Bauer Morrissey to put Cranbrook up 4-0 on the road.

Just a few minutes later, the Bucks found themselves back on the man-advantage looking to extend the lead before the midway point of the game.

At 8:47 of the second, Hjartarson connected on the PP for his first goal of the season and second point of the night.

Henry also notched his second point of the night with a helper, while Cooper Boulanger assisted for his first point in the league.

Hjartarson’s tally made it 5-0 for the visitors and chased Dundord from the Merritt net — a move that seemed to immediately change the momentum for the Centennials.

Merritt responded quickly to get on the board thanks to a Connor Farren goal at 9:59, and added another from Diego Johnson at 15:48 to trim the deficit back down to three goals.

Cranbrook outshot the Centennials by a 13-11 total in a period that saw the teams exchange a pair of goals each, and the Bucks took a 5-2 lead into the intermission.

The third period followed a similar path to the one created in the latter half of the second stanza, with both teams creating chances, but neither breaking through.

The Bucks entered the period up by a field goal and were able to play a conservative style of hockey on the road to preserve the victory.

Cranbrook outshot Merritt 14-9 in the final frame and hung on for the 5-2 win.

Nathan Airey stopped 28 of the 30 Centennials shots that he faced in the contest to record his 22nd career win.

In the Merritt net, Merik Erickson stopped all 23 shots he faced in 20:29 of action after replacing Dunford, who surrendered five goals on 20 shots through the first 28:47 of the game.

Hjartarson earned first star honours while Henry was the game’s second star, after both tallying a goal and an assist.

Farren was the game’s third star for the Centennials following his efforts that included scoring their first goal of the season.

In addition to Hjartarson’s two points, returning veterans Pfoh, Smith, Bentham, and Morrissey all recorded their first of the new season.

Henry led Cranbrook’s newcomers with two points, while Frias, Peluso, Silich, and Boulanger all found a BCHL scoresheet for the first time.

The Bucks improved to 5-0-1 all time against Merritt and 2-0-1 at the NMVA.

Cranbrook is next in action on Saturday with a visit to the Penticton Vees at the South Okanagan Events Centre.

The official boxscore can be seen here courtesy of the BCHL website, while the Bucks post-game recap from their website can be viewed here.

The game highlights can also be seen below from Cranbrook’s YouTube page.

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