Vernon Vipers
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TJ Dumonceaux of the Vernon Vipers takes a shot on Langley Rivermen goalie James Barr as defenceman Tanner Johnson tries to shut him down in B.C. Hockey League action Saturday night at Wesbild Centre. Langley won 3-2 in overtime.
Lisa VanderVelde/Morning Star

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Vernon Vipers' playoff push stalls

Tanner Johnson’s first two B.C. Hockey League goals proved to be big ones for the Langley Rivermen.

A midseason call-up from his hometown KIJHL Castlegar Rebels, Johnson scored once in regulation and added the overtime winner as Langley upended the Vernon Vipers 3-2 Saturday night at Wesbild Centre.

With the Rivermen trailing 2-0 after one period, Johnson leaned into a shot from the top of the circle, ripping it top shelf past Austin Smith. He buried the winner low, just inside the post in the first OT period.

“It feels exhilarating. The first goal, I wasn’t expecting that; it was handed to me,” said Johnson, who is thrilled to be playing Junior A.

“It’s the best thing that’s happened to me. It was a little rough at first, but the more games you play the more you get used to it.”

The 17-24-1-9 Vipers’ playoff hopes took a serious hit in Friday night’s 3-2 loss to the 22-23-2-4 Salmon Arm SilverBacks. They are six points back of the Gorillas for the fourth and final Interior Division playoff spot.

The ‘Backs wrap up the regular season with five straight road games, including a Coastal/Vancouver Island swing, and need to win two of their remaining five games to eliminate Vernon from postseason contention.

The Vipers visited the West Kelowna Warriors (25-13-3-9) Tuesday night at Royal LePage Place. They are in Prince George Friday for a date with the Spruce Kings (24-20-1-7) at the Coliseum.

Given Friday’s setback, the Vernon coaching staff was concerned by how the team would respond Saturday. They watched the Snakes get right to work in the first period, out-hustling the Rivermen (22-23-1-5) to earn a 2-0 lead at the break on goals by captain Brett Corkey and Craig Martin.

“That’s a tough loss to the team we’re chasing,” said assistant coach Dave Robinson. “We were pleasantly surprised at how we came out.

“But we let our foot off the gas and put to waste the first period. We had those mental lapses that seem to have killed us all year. You take your foot off the gas for two minutes and it’s in the back of the net.”

Corkey went end-to-end, working a give-and-go with Michael Roberts before wiring his third of the season, post and in past netminder James Barr.

A speedy breakout by TJ Dumonceaux led to Martin’s snipe. Getting the puck deep, Dumonceaux created havoc behind Langley’s net and connected with Martin (7th) in the final minute of the period.

“I just saw the d-man standing still at the blueline and knew if I chipped it wide I could get around him,” said Dumonceaux, who admitted the team was still reeling from the loss to the ‘Backs.

“It’s tough to get up for games like this after last night. I know a lot of us were ready for this, but a couple guys were off tonight.”

Vernon looked sluggish in the second period, and the Rivermen capitalized. After Johnson netted the 2-1 goal, Matt Ustaski batted a rebound out of midair over netminder Austin Smith’s shoulder for the equalizer during a second-period man advantage.

The Vipers pressed to retake the lead with a solid third-period effort, but Barr (32 saves) made a couple timely stops late to send it to OT. He came up with a game saver on Logan Mick, who was all alone on his doorstep with five minutes left in regulation.

Smith had 23 saves for the Snakes.

Langley head coach Bobby Henderson was tossed for arguing with referee Nick Swaine for a slashing call on Ben Butcher midway through the third period.

“It was a critical point of the game and I thought it was a soft call,” said Henderson. “I just wanted to keep him honest.”

The Rivermen are rolling towards the postseason with 14 rookies, yet only four of their players are under six feet tall. Henderson has assembled a roster that will be a handful for most teams. The lineup is highlighted by BCHL scoring leader Mario Puskarich (38-42-80 in 51 games), who had two helpers against Vernon.

Langley forward Evan Campbell is 15th on the scoring list with 16-39-55 in 46 games.

“We like to pay a physical brand, but we’ve got some guys that can scoot,” said Henderson. “We just try to have guys embrace their roles.”

In other Interior action Saturday night, the Warriors grounded the Merritt Centennials 2-1, and the Trail Smoke Eaters outlasted the Penticton Vees 4-3 in OT.

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