Dexter Dancs figured he was overdue to pull something big for the Vernon Vipers.
The big North Vancouver winger went sky-high Thursday night, recording the overtime snipe as the Vipers iced the Toronto Lakeshore Patriots 3-2 in a Royal Bank Cup round-robin showdown at Kal Tire Place.
The Vipers will face the Western champion Yorkton Terriers in the national Junior A hockey semifinal Saturday (2 p.m.). Vernon, Yorkton and the Eastern Rep Carleton Place Canadians of Ottawa all finished the round-robin at 2-2. The Vipers placed second by virtue of a better goals for and against record in games between the group.
The West No. 2 seeded Dauphin Kings topped preliminary play and will face the Canadians Saturday at 6 p.m. The Kings had the choice of either the matinee or evening game.
Dancs, voted the Vipers’ co-MVP a week ago, scored with 9:43 left in OT, beating Toronto goalie Evan Buitenhuis from in tight. Michael McNicholas and d-man Riley Guenther drew assists on the powerplay marker.
Toronto star sniper Kevin Shier had served 68 seconds of a high sticking minor.
“It was a hell of a game for sure, probably the best game I’ve ever played in,” said Dancs, who got the game MVP hard hat from his teammates. “There’s no other way we’d rather win it, home and overtime. It’s a pretty special feeling.”
Dancs used all his 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame to register the winner and take Player of the Game honours.
“I got it on the goal-line and I kind of took it to the net and the d-man didn’t come to me and I was able to go around the goalie and tuck it in.”
Dancs, McNicholas and Demico Hannoun broke out with their best game of the tournament.
“I wasn’t happy with my first three games of the tournament and coach sat my line down and talked to us and I thought we were way better tonight.”
Vernon goalie Austin Smith made a stellar save off Shier (32 points to lead the country in the post-season) from the slot, three minutes into overtime.
The crowd of 2,450 figured it was game over when Hannoun went hard to the net and redirected a gorgeous pass from the left side wall by McNicholas.
Toronto forced overtime with seven seconds left with Viper playoff hero Colton Sparrow off for high sticking. Smooth-skating d-man Michael Prapavessis netted the equalizer on a wild scramble, the assist going to Nathan Feric. Sparrow had been in the penalty box 29 seconds.
Centre Andreas Tsogkas put Toronto up six minutes into the game with a wrister from the middle past a screened Smith. Vernon d-man Kenny Citron had just returned to the ice after serving a minor for holding.
Shortly after the Vipers couldn’t convert on a brief 5-on-3 powerplay, Brett Mulcahy tipped in a Sparrow feed from behind the net for the equalizer on a one-man advantage.
Vernon outshot Toronto 46-24 and were the better team on the night, but didn’t have a ton of quality scoring chances. The Patriots are a patient, gritty team and they hung around long enough to cause the Vipers some grief. Buitenhuis was Toronto’s Player of the Game.
“Both teams played excellent tonight,” said Smith. “I gotta commend Toronto for their effort and how well they played tonight. That was more our style of hockey tonight, more our game.”
The Vipers’ hit parade was led by Citron and Logan Mick. Both players rocked Toronto’s Rory Bell, Citron knocking Bell’s lid flying near the Viper blueline early in the second period. Mick belted the durable Bell along the side wall in the neutral zone seven minutes later.
Hannoun lost an edge and fell on a partial breakaway early in the third, while Mulcahy just failed to jam the puck past Buitenhuis short side a few minutes later.
Guenther made a gigantic shot block just seconds before Smith stood his ground on Shier in the extra session.
Smith, who gave way to Danny Todosychuk after allowing two goals in a 5-2 loss to Dauphin Tuesday night, could not be faulted on either Toronto tally.
The Vipers dominated most of overtime, outshooting the Pats 9-2.
“From start to finish, I thought we deserved to win that game,” said Viper head coach Jason Williamson. “We were what we wanna be. We were hard, we were physical, we were very simple and our top guys were our best players. It was a game we needed to have and the guys showed up.”
Toronto, a good skating club based in Etobicoke, rung up a 35-win season and were making their first appearance as Central champs in a nationals.
“We were maybe a little nervous in the first half of the game, being a younger team trying to get to this stage, but I thought they adjusted really well and pushed back in the last 10, 15 minutes of the game,” said Toronto head coach Jason Fortier.
“It’s unfortunate. We had a good talk in the room and obviously, it’s never a good moment when you’ve seen tears in a player’s eyes. There’s not much you can other than comfort them. We should be proud of what this team did and there could much more from this team in the future.”
Dancs said the Vipers are certainly ready for Yorkton, who they held off 6-4 in preliminary play Monday night.
“We like it (match-up). We beat them the first time. They’re oviously a very good team. They almost came back on us. They’ve got some good d-men and a couple of skilled fowards. We’ll be preparing for them the next few days. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Williamson said the Vipers know Yorkton relies heavily on the back end pairing of Devon McMullen and Chase Norrish.
“We know what they are; they’re very structured. Their dee core is very mobile, a group that we have to contain because they jump in the play. A lot of their game comes from their defencemen. We’ll give the boys some video and if we play the way we did tonight and leave it all on the ice, we should be in good shape.”
Hard-hitting winger Brendan Persley, who was injured early in Vernon’s tournament opener Saturday and can hardly walk, played a handful of courageous shifts before taking a seat. Williamson plans to put Persley back in the lineup Saturday.
“It’s a day-to-day thing, but he adds so much life and bench to our bench. He’s a leader through and through. He’s good even on one good leg.”
The gold-medal game goes Sunday at 4:30 p.m., live on TSN. Vernon has six national titles, while the other three semifinalists are looking for their first. Yorkton and Dauphin have both lost in the finals once. The Canadians are making their first appearance in the nationals.
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