The Vernon Vipers went into game five of the B.C. Hockey League season Tuesday night against the winless Merritt Centennials with a chance of landing in a share of second place.
A week ago, the two-time defending Royal Bank champions were tied for last place at 0-2 and had some fans on the verge of suicide watch.
All was calmer Saturday as the Vipers went to work on a night where workaholic Rob Short’s No. 20 jersey was raised to the rafters, earning a 4-1 victory over the Penticton Vees before 1,939 fans at Wesbild Centre.
“It’s totally deserved; he’s a heck of a player,” said second-year and first-star Viper centre Dylan Walchuk, of Short. “He came out every game, all 309 games, and worked the hardest. He’s a really good character guy and I’m just really happy for him. We made him proud. The whole team battled hard, we capitalized on our chances, and came out with a brilliant effort.”
Walchuk scored the winner and drew one assist as the Vipers went to 2-2 for a share of third spot in the Interior Conference alongside the Vees, Westside Warriors and Quesnel Millionaires.
“We don’t have as many experienced guys as last year, but we have a young, energetic team that works really hard,” added Walchuk. “We’re fast and I think we’re gonna be good.”
The Vees, who were without Montreal Canadiens draft pick Mark MacMillan (broken right wrist), opened the scoring on Bradley Robbins’ goal 6:26 into the first period.
Joey Benik, a slick 60-goal man in Minnesota State high school last year, drove to the net and Robbins’ beat Blake Voth with the rebound.
The Vipers equalized five minutes into the second period when New Yorker Mike Zalewski pocketed his first BCHL G-note with a nifty tip of a Brett Corkey point shot.
Vernon went ahead seven minutes later when Walchuk easily outhustled the Vees’ Stefan Nicholishen for a loose puck behind the net and beat Joel Rumpel with a gorgeous wrap-around.
Bryce Kakoske, a 20-year-old local product, wired a low slapper past Rempel from the left point 38 seconds into a powerplay late in the period.
Walchuk pickpocketed Troy Stecher behind the Vees’ net and fed captain and second star Dave Robinson (1+2) in the low slot for a shorthanded goal with five minutes remaining.
Kakoske, named third star, said there was no sense of urgency in the Viper dressing room as they went into the home and home with Penticton. He said the Vipers were well aware of the ceremony honouring Short.
“We all knew it was happening and Shorty’s a great player; he deserved that, and I’m glad we could get the win for him tonight. We’ve got a lot of young talent this year. We have a very quick team and we just gotta show these (young) guys what it’s like to be a Viper.”
The Vees, who like the Vipers, lost several veterans through scholarships, played a physical tilt and tied Vernon for shots on goal at 26.
“I thought tonight was probably one of our better games of the four we’ve played,” said muscle-filled captain Derik Johnson. “We kind of changed the momentum in the second with that too many on the ice penalty and they capitalized on one and they got another on a kind of a questionable call but that’s the way she goes early in the season.”
Johnson figures the Vees will be more of a blue-collar bunch that doesn’t rely so heavily on the powerplay this year.
“When you come into your season with so many of your top-end guys leaving, that’s going to be the case. It’s going to be a race to see who’s going to be the best at the end of the year. It makes coming to the rink fun every day. As long as guys on our team keep coming to the rink, we’re going to be in good shape come April.”
The Vipers, meanwhile, signed 17-year-old Vernon product Max Mowat, a d-man who was a late cut by the WHL Kamloops Blazers last week. Mowat played for the Major Midget Okanagan Rockets last year, earning 13-23-36.
To make room for Mowat, the Vipers dealt d-man Bennett Hambrook of Kimberley to the Prince George Spruce Kings for futures.
SNAKE BITES: The Vipers visit the Spruce Kings Friday night and Sunday afternoon sandwiched around a Saturday night date at The Vault in Quesnel…Viper rookie stud Mark Basara, who is looking for his first goal, ragged the puck in circles through the Vees’ zone for about 15 seconds before going to the net with speed, in a final-minute shift in the second period…Tampa Bay Lightning draft Brendan O’Donnell showed flashes of brilliance on Penticton’s top line with veterans Garrett Milan and Joey Holka.