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Victoria Grizzlies, Bulldogs open BCHL playoff series in the Dawg Pound

Cleve Dheensaw

Not only will youth be served, but it will be an outright factor on the blue line and in goal for the Victoria Grizzlies and Alberni Valley Bulldogs in their B.C. Hockey League Coastal Conference quarter-final series beginning tonight in Port Alberni.

Grizzlies defencemen Hoyt Stanley, the 77th-ranked North American skater for this year’s NHL draft, Bulldogs defender Jax Wismer, the hometown Port Alberni product committed to NCAA Div. 1 with the University of Connecticut Huskies, and emerging Grizzlies goaltender Oliver Auyeung-Ashton were named this week to the BCHL all-17-year-olds team. Auyeung-Ashton was also named the BCHL High School Player of the Month for March. The Coquitlam product posted a .918 save percentage during the month, winning five games and starting 10 of his team’s 11 March matchups.

But never also ­underestimate the value of experience in the playoffs. That will be ­provided amply for the Bulldogs by ­forward and NCAA Div. 1 ­Merrimack-bound Ethan Bono, the veteran six-foot-three ­forward out of Port McNeill. ­­For the Grizzlies it could be ­leading-scorer Olivier Picard, the Memorial Cup-winning forward last season with the Saint John Sea Dogs, and Boston University-bound Jack Gorton, who provide that veteran edge and post-season experience.

Stanley, Auyeung-Ashton and Picard head into the jaws of the Dawg Pound tonight and Saturday in Port Alberni, with Wismer and Bono looking to defend it, in the first two games of the best-of-seven series before it swings down-Island for the third and fourth games Tuesday and Wednesday at The Q Centre.

“Our rink has a reputation [among visiting teams] as an unwelcoming place,” said Bulldogs president David Michaud.

“It’s time for the Dawg Pound to get barking.”

The Bulldogs threw even more gasoline on the issue with a story on their website previewing the series that contained the following statement: “The Bulldogs home-ice advantage will be an X-factor in the series. There is no question on which arena provides the better atmosphere for the series. The Dawg Pound has been a zoo of late, while The Q Centre can best be described as a calm environment.”

Michaud doubled down and said the Bulldogs faithful travels well on the Island and are usually louder on the road than the home teams’ fans.

The Bulldogs’ home-ice, and perhaps even road-game fan advantage, could prove the difference as every other metric between the Coastal Conference third-seed Bulldogs (31-19-4) and sixth-seed Grizzlies (26-20-8) is about even. The regular-season series was won 4-3 by Alberni Valley but one of their wins was in overtime and another in a shootout. The combined scores in the seven meetings favoured the Bulldogs but by only 22-21. The Grizzlies had two recent wins over the Bulldogs in March.

“There’s not a ton of difference between these teams,” said Michaud.

“There’s a lot of talent on both teams with a number of players [12 on the Bulldogs and nine on the Grizzlies] committed to NCAA Div. 1 at top-flight schools.”

Another factor could be momentum. The Bulldogs head into the series with the best record in the Coastal Conference since Christmas at 21-4-1, and second best in the league in that time behind only the runaway regular-season champion Penticton Vees. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, stagger in after having lost their last four regular-season games, including 4-0 to the Bulldogs in Alberni’s season finale at the Alberni Valley ­Multiplex.

Hobie Hedquist recorded his third shutout of the season, and eighth of his career, for his Alberni Valley franchise-record 54th career victory in that game against Victoria. The Bulldogs’ six-foot-two American goaltender from Heron Lake, Minnesota, is headed to traditional NCAA Div. 1 powerhouse North Dakota and will be another factor in the series. Hedquist was ranked by Central Scouting for the 2022 NHL draft but overlooked and is making pro scouts second-guess themselves.

“The Bulldogs have been the best team in our conference since Christmas, and are solid in all areas from goaltending to defence to the forwards,” said Grizzlies GM and head coach Rylan Ferster.

“They have a fun building to play in. We know we have to win at least one game in that ­building.”

In the other Coastal Conference first-round playoff series, the conference top-seed Nanaimo Clippers (37-14-3) meet the eighth-seed Langley Rivermen (16-33-5) with Clippers head coach Colin Birkas suspended and Dave Liffiton named interim coach for the playoffs. The second-seed Surrey Eagles (35-16-3) play the seventh-seed Powell River Kings (20-26-8) and fourth-seed Coquitlam Express (28-19-7) meet the fifth-seed Chilliwack Chiefs (28-22-4).

The Interior Conference playoffs, headed by the league top-seed Vees (50-3-1), also open tonight and Saturday.