PENTICTON – Pundits picked the Vernon Vipers to squeak into the fourth and final Interior Division playoff spot.
Those predictions came before the Vipers began the regular B.C. Hockey League season with an interim head coach.
Enter former Snakes’ bench boss Mark Ferner, who began the season assisting Don Hay with the Western League Kamloops Blazers.
The 49-year-old ex-NHL d-man tweaked the roster, brought in his proven structured system and the team slowly flourished, finishing a solid second behind the Penticton Vees, ranked No. 6 in the nation.
The Vipers delivered a fast, thrill-a-second brand of hockey buoyed by wheels from the likes of Thomas Aldworth, TJ Dumonceaux, Liam Coughlin and Liam Finlay.
They surprisingly swept the gritty Merritt Centennials in round one of the post-season and then took the mighty Vees – stacked with 13 U.S. scholarship players and nine returnees – to Game 7 of the Interior finals Sunday night before 3,200 boisterous fans at the South Okanagan Events Centre.
Game 69 of Vernon’s season ended when bruising blueliner and co-captain Patrick Sexton’s shot from the left point struck a Viper in front and slowly rolled past a startled goalie Danny Todosychuk with 2:53 to play. Matthew Sarratore added an empty netter with four seconds left as the Vees won 2-0 to claim the Ryan Hatfield Memorial Trophy.
Sexton, an Ottawa product who turns 21 next month, has recorded 16 goals in five years of Junior A. His last snipe came in late December. He is the son of former Senators’ GM Randy Sexton.
“They threw it at the net, it hit a shin pad (Riley Brandt’s on the shot block) and went up in the air; it was real similar to our overtime winner (Luke Voltin in Game 5),” said Ferner, moments after the heartbreaking loss. “We don’t know what the difference is going to be and unfortunately, it was something like that. Two real good teams went at it and we put our poor Game 6 effort (5-1 before a sellout 3,200 fans Saturday night at Kal Tire Place) behind us and we came out and played a great game.
“It’s not easy on them (Vees) either. All the pressure was on them. We had some great looks. I’m not sure people thought we would have gone this far. Behind closed doors, we don’t really care what people think; we’ve got a bunch of character kids in there and I think it’s gonna bode well for the future of this organization and for the kids who are moving on. They were the heart and soul of this team.”
Viper captain/d-man Riley Guenther was superb in the playoffs, pocketing three goals and eight points in 11 games. He, Dumonceaux, Liam Coughlin, Kenny Citron and Todoyschuk were the five returning Vipers.
“I’m proud of the way the guys battled tonight,” said Guenther, a 20-year-old Calgary product and one of nine raduating Snakes. “I thought we gave it everything we had and I thought we deserved a better fate. They get a lucky bounce and it goes in and it cost us. Nobody expected us to go this far.”
Finlay and others quickly comforted Todoyschuk, who stood, head down, frozen, in his crease as the final buzzer sounded.
“I’m super proud of Danny,” said a red-eyed Guenther. “He’s battled through injury all through the playoffs. His groin was bugging him and he kept pulling through for us. He was great again tonight. He gets one that flutters, just a bad bounce, nothing you can do.”
Neither team mustered many Grade A scoring chances at the gorgeous $80 million Events Centre with the Vees holding a 20-16 shot margin after two periods. Tyson Jost – a first-round WHL bantam draft pick of the Everett Silvertips – was stoned by Todosychuk on an early wrap-around attempt.
Vees’ net detective Hunter Miska foiled Coughlin on a sweet backhand move, in tight, in the more wide-open third period. Miska also made a pair of fabulous stops as the Vipers pressed on a 84-second powerplay early in the frame.
Jost, expected to go high in the 2016 NHL draft, earned the assist on Sexton’s goal.
“Me and (d-man Dante) Fabbro talked before the draw, we just wanted to get the puck to the net,” said Sexton, named the game’s first star. “I think it bounced off his (Brandt’s) skate. At this point I don’t really care, they all count. It’s a little sweet revenge for last year.”
Michael McNicholas slammed in a loose puck from close range at 2:06 of overtime as Vernon took the seventh game 4-3 last year.
“They (Vernon) have been a bit of a thorn in our side,” said Penticton head coach Fred Harbinson. “Last year to the day, we lose in overtime after giving up a 3-1 lead. All of a sudden the other night, we’re playing great and we didn’t sit back. We played our butts off. They (Vipers) are a hell of a team. They are one of the best teams in the league.
“I promised our guys today I was going to do the best job I have ever done coaching and they promised they were going to play the best game they could play.”
Citron gave props to the Vipers for thriving on adversity all year.
“At the start of the season, we didn’t have a head coach,” said the New Yorker who turns 20 this Sunday. “I think there’s something to be learned from that for all the guys on this team, especially the guys coming back next year.”
Citron singled out Todoyschuk, who served as Austin Smith’s caddy in last year’s playoffs and the Royal Bank Cup.
“He played phenomenal all series, but sometimes the results don’t add up. That’s life. Sometimes you don’t get the bounces. I think this team deserved a better fate. Good luck to them (Vees). It’s a good organization and they’ve got a good team.”
Penticton co-captain Cody DePourcq, who battles opponents almost twice his size night after night, sported a perma-grin outside the Vees’ NHL-like dressing room Sunday night.
“It feels amazing,” said DePourcq, whose father, John, was a 52-goal scorer for the Penticton Knights in the 1986-87 season when they were swept by Vernon in the Interior semifinals. “There’s no real words to describe how we feel in there, especially to see Patrick Sexton get that goal. He’s a great player for us. He battles so hard. It was good to see him get rewarded like that.”
The emotions for DePourcq were much different 12 months ago.
“I was on the ice for the (Vipers) overtime goal so that was a tough moment. To get this one was huge.”
All the Vees showed class by embracing Finlay, a former teammate, traded to Vernon for the rights to Dakota Conroy of the WHL Prince Albert Raiders early in the season, in the handshake. Sexton rocked Finlay with a monster hit in Game 2, knocking him out of the middle part of the series.
“I just told him I was really happy he was OK,” said Sexton. “He’s such a good kid. He fit in really well here. I’m glad he had a great year. I was happy to see he was OK. He was able to come back in this series. Just wished him best of luck the rest of the way next year. He said he appreciated that.”
The Vees host the Nanaimo Clippers Wednesday night in Game 1 of the double round robin series involving the three conference champions. The Chilliwack Chiefs are the other entry.