The newest Panther made an immediate impact as the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League (VIJHL) team rattled off two straight victories.
Andrew Rocha stopped 25 of 26 shots on Friday as the Panthers beat the Saanich Braves 4-1 just days after the 20-year-old Ontario native signed with the team. Rocha had played in Junior A in Ontario but was looking for a better situation after a goalie returned from the Quebec Major Junior League.
“We have a real solid goaltender in Connor McKillop, but we felt that we needed to add another top stopper if we wanted to compete and to win in the playoffs,” said Pete Zubersky, the club’s general manager, who framed Rocha’s signing as evidence of the Panthers’ seriousness in competing for a Cyclone Taylor Cup Championship synonymous with Junior B supremacy in B.C. “Rocha has not disappointed. He is a battler. He never gives up. He will push McKillop and McKillop will push him. Our 1-2 punch between the pipes is probably the best it’s been in the 20 years we have owned the club.”
The Panthers also added 19-year-old forward Aiden Craig-Steele from Fort St. John as an offensive weapon.
After Rocha’s player of the game performance Friday, the Panthers then turned to McKillop in their road game against the Kerry Park Islanders, an 8-1 thrashing of the hosts. McKillop picked up his league-leading 23rd victory in saving 18 of 19 shots. Captain Thomas Spink and VIJHL leading scorer Tanner Wort each scored a couple of goals in the rout while Logan Speirs, Lingard, Braun and Drew Coughlin added singles. Craig-Steele added an assist in each of the two games while getting his feet wet.
Head coach Brad Tippett said the weekend games were pleasing. “The new addition in Rocha gives us two top notch goaltenders while Craig-Steele will add some offence and creativity,” he said.
With the pair of victories, the Panthers became the first team in the league to win 30 games, but Tippett sounded especially pleased about with the team’s commitment towards what he called the “little unsung, dirty job plays” that limited opponents to two goals.
“Back-checking, shot blocking, taking a hit to make a play or to get the puck out and guys successfully playing out of their normal positions were just a few items that we did well with,” he said. “The team first attitude got us big leads and allowed us to tinker with lines and defensive pairings.”
The Panthers — both old and new — are entering a quiet phase of the season with one game in the next nine days.
“[This] will allow time to heal some bumps and bruises and a few practices to work on special situations,” said Tippett. “Being the first team to achieve 30 wins is just ticking off one of our seasonal goals. We have to remember there is lots a room at the top but not enough to sit down.”
Looking at the standings, the Panthers sit one point behind their arch-rival Victoria Cougars, who have three games in hand. The Panthers return to action Friday with a home game against the Kerry Park Islanders at Panorama Recreation Centre, with the puck dropping at 7:30 p.m.
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