TRURO - Brandon Boutilier makes no bones about it.
Truro Bearcats forward Brandon Boutilier faces his former team, the Valley Wildcats, in the EastLink Division semifinal of the Kent Cup playoffs. The series gets underway Saturday at 7 p.m. at RECC. File photo
Sure, for two-and-a-half seasons he was a member of the Valley Wildcats, whom his Truro Bearcats meet Saturday in Game 1 of their best-of-seven EastLink Division semifinal. And sure, the 20-year-old Hackett's Cove native still holds close friendships with several players who now form the opposition.
But when Boutilier steps on the ice at 7 p.m. at RECC, he'll be doing so to win.
"When it comes down to it, there's no friends on the ice," Boutilier said. "We know we're going to be friends after the series no matter what happens on the ice, so I'm playing to win."
Boutilier came to the Bearcats in a Jan. 10 deadline deal, which saw rookie Jean-Marc Evans-Renaud head the other way. Initially, Boutilier was reluctant to leave Valley when approached by Bearcats captain Phillip Fife, a longtime friend. He had a good billet family, was close with his teammates and was "comfortable" in his final season of junior A hockey. But with Fife and former Bearcat T.J. Smith - now a Wildcats assistant coach - planting bugs in his ear while Valley lingered near the bottom of the division standings and Truro hovered at the top, Boutilier decided to make the move and chase a title.
"It's one of the best decisions I've ever made," he said.
Boutilier quickly became an important ingredient in a winning recipe for Truro, helping the Bearcats to victory 19 times in their final 22 games. The five-foot-10, 188-pounder collected 16 points (3G, 13A) in 20 games but also made the Bearcats a deeper team and harder to match lines with. He's also added character to the squad both on and off the ice.
"He brings speed, tenacity, he's good on the forecheck and he's a lot more skilled than a lot of people realize," Bearcats coach Shawn Evans said. "Plus he's got a lot of experience and knows his way around the league."
Although Boutilier admits he didn't forsee the current scenario playing out, he's not surprised. The Wildcats used strong coaching, good goaltending from league rookie of the year Blade Mann-Dixon and a never-say-die work ethic to sweep the Yarmouth Mariners in two games in the mini-series. Boutilier and Fife attended Game 2 in Kentville on Tuesday.
"They're definitely a hard-working team," Boutilier said of the Wildcats. "They could be down by seven goals but they don't ever take their foot off the gas, so you can't take them lightly. They're a real blue-collar team."
Although the Kent Cup playoffs are a totally different beast than the regular season, the Bearcats have recent history on their side. Truro has taken all eight meetings between the two clubs this season, outscoring Valley 48-15 in the process. The Bearcats never scored less than four times in any one of those tilts while never allowing more than three goals.
Nevertheless, Evans agreed with Boutilier in that the Bearcats can't afford to underestimate their opponent. The Bearcats are at their best when they're working as a five-man unit, forechecking and winning the one-on-one battles.
"At the end of the day we need to play to our potential," Evans said. "We've got a quality opponent that just beat a quality team so we need to keep our window small and take it one game at a time while keeping in mind it's a seven-game series."
NOTES: Evans said he'll be calling upon Chris Festarini to start in the Truro net on Saturday. Since arriving from the OHL's Niagara IceDogs at the trade deadline, Festarini holds a .930 save percentage and 2.28 goals-against average in 14 games. He teamed up with Jacob Fancy (2.24GAA) to earn the Bearcats the Young Knickle Award for the lowest combined goals-against average.
Bearcats forward Mitchell Robillard has been ruled out for the series. The 20-year-old St. Eustache, Que., native is still recovering from a broken wrist suffered Jan. 18. He was tied for third on the team in scoring with 36 points (16G, 20A) in 33 games at the time of the injury.
On Twitter: @tdnmatt
Game 1 at Truro: Saturday at 7 p.m.
Game 2 at Kentville: Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
Game 3 at Truro: Thursday at 7 p.m.
Game 4 at Kentville: March 22 at 7:30 p.m.
*Game 5 at Truro: March 25 at 7 p.m.
*Game 6 at Kentville: March 27 at 7:30 p.m.
*Game 7 at Truro: March 29 at 7 p.m.