Captain steers Vees to victory over red-hot Clippers
Captain Massimo Rizzo is heating up after missing the first six weeks of the B.C. Hockey League season with a lower-back injury. Rizzo scored twice and added an assist as the Penticton Vees defeated the Nanaimo Clippers 4-1 in front of 2,964 fans Saturday at the South Okanagan Events Centre, halting Nanaimo’s winning streak at 10 games.
Vees president, GM and head coach Fred Harbinson said he had a long chat last week with the gifted 18-year-old forward, who is projected to be a high pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft in June.
“The mental side can be the hardest thing when you’re coming back from a significant injury,” said Harbinson. “A little soreness can be normal, especially after a lengthy layoff. We’re seeing him come into his own and the timing couldn’t be better.”
Rizzo has logged four goals and three helpers in his last three games and has eight goals and 25 points in 21 games this season.
Jack Barnes and Lukas Sillinger also scored for the Vees (27-12-1-2), who took over sole possession of first place in the Interior Division, two points ahead of idle Merritt.
Defenceman James Miller followed up a four-point game in Friday’s 5-3 win over Powell River with an assist, putting him in a tie for fourth place in the BCHL scoring race with 52 points.
The Vees nursed a 1-0 lead into the third period before erupting for two goals in 51 seconds to blow it open. MacKenzie Merriman spoiled Jack LaFontaine’s shutout bid with a power play goal with 2:16 left for Nanaimo (22-19-0).
LaFontaine made 20 saves while Jordan Naylor stopped 36 shots for the Clippers.
Penticton has now won six of its last seven games.
Harbinson was “extremely pleased” with all his players in the two weekend wins.
He said the defence corps was terrific, adding he’s excited to think about how it will look once newly acquired Jonathan Smart makes his debut Jan. 25 at Powell River.
Smart, signed from the Western Hockey League, is ineligible to play in the Vees first five games, but will practice with the team for the first time today.
The two other newcomers at the trade deadline – defenceman Evan McIntyre and centre Ty Pochipinski – also impressed Harbinson.
“McIntyre had two A-plus games,” said the coach, comparing him to Conner Hutchinson, who is out for the season with a knee injury. “He skates so well, makes it look effortless and there is no panic at all to his game.”
Pochipinski’s speed and two-way game caught the eye of the coaching staff.
“Ty hadn’t even practised with us and he comes into a situation where we only had 10 forwards, so there was no continuity with linemates. We had him at centre and at wing and he fit in well wherever we used him.” Harbinson said injured forward Andre Ghantous (upper-body) could be back in time for Wednesday’s key game in Wenatchee, while forward and team goalscoring leader Ryan Sandelin (upper-body) is expected back in just over a week.
“Obviously we like to play a fast, high-tempo game and having four full lines will enable us to consistently play that way,” Harbinson said.
Harbinson noted it’s a “huge” week ahead for Penticton. Aside from the 6 p.m. visit to Wenatchee, the Vees host a strong, veteran Prince George Spruce Kings squad on Friday at 7 p.m., followed by a key showdown against the Centennials in Merritt Sunday at 6 p.m.
“In spite of all the injuries we’ve had, here we are still in contention to not only win our division, but finish first overall,” said Harbinson.
Chilliwack Chiefs have 59 points after beating Prince George 4-3 in a shootout on Sunday, the Vees and Spruce Kings each have 57, Victoria 56 and Merritt 55.
ICE CHIPS: Vees F Jack Barnes was the recipient of an ugly knee-on-knee hit from Clippers defenceman Devon Mussio, who was given a five-minute major and game misconduct. Barnes was able to return to the game, while Mussio was later given a two-game suspension … A massive scrum broke out in front of the Vees bench with 2:59 to play as three Clippers jumped Vees D Peter Muzyka after a clean hit on F Zack Dallazzana, who avoided the brunt of the collision. The Clippers curiously ended up on the power play during which they scored their only goal … Rizzo, LaFontaine and F Luke Loheit were the three stars.