It's the second trip in franchise history for the Express to the BCHL final. Their first coming in 2006 when the franchise was located in Burnaby where they won in 6 games over Penticton en route to an RBC Cup national championship.
For Vernon they've won a BCHL best 12 BCHL championships in their long and storied history.
They're back in the final for the first time since 2011 when they capped off a run of 3 straight Fred Page Cup championships.
This series features two teams that finished third in their respective divisions during the regular season.
The Express advanced to the final with 6 games wins over Prince George and Langley. Then went 2-1 in the round robin semi final losing their first game to Vernon 6-1 in Vernon. Then taking both games vs. Victoria 6-3 and 4-3 in triple overtime last Thursday to advance to the Fred Page Cup final.
Victoria was eliminated after going 0-3 in the round robin losing both games to the Express and their first of the third round 5-4 to Vernon. The Vipers went 2-0 in the round robin with their wins over the Express and Grizzlies in a 3 day span.
In the first two rounds of the playoffs Vernon advanced by defeating West Kelowna in 6 games in the first round. Then needing a come back from a 3-1 third period deficit and an overtime goal from Michael McNicholas in Penticton in game 7 to advance.
Both teams have had a chance to rest after the Express played 12 games in 18 days in the first two rounds. Vernon played 13 games in 19 days in the first two rounds.
Then both teams had about a week off to prepare for round 3. Then Vernon played just two games in 3 days. The Express played 3 games in 5 nights in the third round.
Entering the final the Vipers will have played just 2 games in a span of nearly 3 weeks 19 days dating back to their series clinching win over Penticton. And they will have had 11 days off since their last game on March 30th vs. the Express.
The Express will have played 3 games since they eliminated Langley in 6 games on March 21st. And they will have had 7 full days off by the time the final gets going on Friday night.
Entering the final these teams can't truly say they're completely familiar with one another despite the one meeting between the clubs in the third round on March 30th in Vernon. That 6-1 Vipers victory was a much closer game than the final score showed at the end of the night.
It was a 2-1 Vernon lead one minute into the third period. The Express were on the wrong side of puck luck especially in the first two periods. Vernon cleared a puck off the goal line, and had the help of back to back posts in the first period. Ryan Rosenthal was a little unfortunate that he couldn't finish off a wrap around chance in the second period.
Vernon did add 3 goals in the final ten minutes of that contest. Including two in the final minute. And with a goals for and goals against being a possible tie breaker in the third round, they needed to get those key goals at the time which didn't have an impact in the final out come of round 3.
The shots in that game were even at 30 apiece.
For the Express Ryan Rosenthal has been a thoroughbred during the playoffs scoring timely goals and at times being unstoppable. He leads the Express in scoring with 12 goals and 17 points in 15 games.
All the production coming after going pointless in the first three games of the playoffs in the first round vs. Prince George. His line mates Corey Mackin and Adam Rockwood have come up with clutch performances at key times at various points during this playoff run. Rockwood's point production is similar to what we saw in the regular season where he led the team in scoring. He has 1 goal and 13 assists for 14 points in 15 playoff games second behind Rosenthal.
The Pieper brothers have provided timely scoring with various wingers at times in the post season.
The third line mostly consisted of Cody Boyd, Jace Hennig and Joey Santucci has provided very valuable minutes mostly going up against the opposition first line throughout the playoffs minimizing the damage inflicted by the opponents top players. But that line did play the entire third round without Cody Boyd who served a 3 game suspension for an accumulation of junior A supplement infractions. Joey Santucci will be suspended for the first two games of the final in Vernon after receiving a 2 game suspension for his 5 minute major and blow to the head penalty assessed in overtime of the deciding game in Victoria.
Gordie Defiel has been providing championship quality goaltending right from the start of the playoffs. He made 58 saves last Thursday in Victoria. Including 31 in overtime alone.
Zach Hodder and Marc Biega have continued their regular season form in the playoffs adding an offensive punch from the backend with 6 and 5 goals apiece. The rest of the blue line has provided very steady play all playoffs long.
Vernon's top line of Brendan Pearsley, Brett Muclahy and Colton Sparrow have been burning out red lights all playoffs long. They've also got support offensively from Michael McNicholas, TJ Dumonceaux and Liam Coughlin. Josh Bryan on the backend is tied with Adam Rockwood with 13 assists for the second best total in the playoffs to date.
Austin Smith has posted similar numbers to Gordie Defiel in the Vernon crease in the post season.
The Express have made it this far with just 5 goals in the playoffs. That lack off success hasn't hurt them in the playoffs considering they're still playing. I don't really like to make NHL references when writing about the BCHL. But I do remember in 2011 in the set up to the Stanley Cup final between Boston and Vancouver, plenty of the talk at the start of the series was about Boston's lackluster power play. Well we all know how that turned out. Vernon's penalty killing sits at 77.42% in the playoffs.
The Express penalty killing is still second best in the BCHL entering the final at 85.48%. It is the highest mark of all teams that advanced past the first round of the playoffs. Prince George killed off 21 of 22 shorthanded situations in their series with the Express.
On the surface there doesn't seem to be much that separates these two teams at this point. Two very worthy teams have earned their spot in the final and it should be a good series.