There is a strong chance the Vernon Vipers and West Kelowna Warriors could meet in the opening round of the playoffs.
If their regular-season battles are any indication, that’ll be great news for B.C. Hockey League fans, and likely a heavier workload for the team trainers. Watching these teams square off is like watching a pair of Siamese fighting fish get thrown in the tank together – the dislike is both mutual and instant.
“Pen’s (Penticton Vees) always close, but this year the West-K rivalry has been the bigger one,” said Vipers’ captain Riley Guenther, shortly after his team secured a 6-3 comeback win over the Warriors Friday night before 2,000 fans at Kal Tire Place.
“It’s always close, physical, rugged games and they’re fun to be part of. Both teams get heated.”
The Vipers, winners of five straight heading into their Saturday tilt against the Coquitlam Express, have a comfortable hold of second place in the Interior at 27-11-1-2.
The Warriors (21-16-0-5) slipped to fourth after they were overtaken by the Merritt Centennials (23-15-0-2), 4-1 winners over the league-leading Vees Friday.
Leading the Viper rally was Texas forward Thomas Aldworth, who scored the Snakes’ first three goals for his third hat trick of the season to earn first star. The 19-year-old’s 32 snipes are second only to Coquitlam’s Corey Mackin, who has 38.
With Vernon trailing 3-1, Aldworth pulled his team within a goal on a sneaky wraparound on Warriors’ netminder Andy Desautels late in the second period. The hard-skating Texan then earned the equalizer 3:23 into the third frame by tapping home the rebound off linemate TJ Dumonceaux’s shot from the left circle.
“My legs felt pretty good tonight and I was wheeling, so I knew something was going to happen if I just kept playing the same way,” said Aldworth, who hit one post and was denied twice by Desautels on breakaways in the first period.
“They (West Kelowna d-men) keep taking bad gaps on me and I’d take them wide and beat them. I don’t know why, but I’ll take it.”
Aldworth, committed to the NCAA Division 1 Providence Friars, opened Vernon’s account on a 5-on-3 man advantage after singles by Liam Blackburn and Josh Bly had the Warriors leading 2-0 early in the second frame. Blackburn (15th goal) buried a second chance past Danny Todosychuk 13:28 into the first period. Bly (8th) showed good hands in deflecting Kyle Marino’s high point shot early in the second.
Brayden Gelsinger (14th), who looked dangerous on a unit with Jon Desbiens and ex-WHL pivot Andrew Johnson, recorded West Kelowna’s other goal during a second-period powerplay.
Gelsinger, a Regina product who came over to the Warriors in a deal with the Cowichan Valley Capitals in November, said his team strayed from the game-plan in the third period.
“It’s tough to let them come back and get a win like that. It’s pretty frustrating,” said Gelsinger, named third star.
“We just need to play simple and be committed to the dee zone first, and offence will come. We kind of let that go a little bit in the game.”
Referees Bryan Bourdon and Kevin Crowell struggled to maintain order at times as the chippy play carried on after whistles. The duo drew plenty of boos as Vernon played shorthanded eight times, including a pair of 5-on-3s. The Warriors went on the penalty kill four times.
“It was frustrating more than anything for our players,” said Vipers’ head coach Mark Ferner. “At times, we didn’t know what was going to be called.
“They’re kids and their emotions start to go in a wrong direction. Mentally, we’ve got to be stronger.”
Ferner credited his team for persevering to earn an important divisional win.
“West Kelowna had a good start, but we slowly tried to claw ourselves back in the game,” he said. “We started moving our feet, we started to get pucks to the net and we were winning races.
“The effort away from the puck was a lot better for certain guys.”
Vernon really seized the momentum with goals 39 seconds apart by Blaine Caton and Liam Finlay halfway through the third period. Caton (3rd) buried a puck bobbled by Desautels and Finlay (18th) fired a quick one from the slot after Luke Voltin dangled his way into West Kelowna’s zone before feeding Finlay in front.
Voltin (10th) added extra insurance with an empty netter from centre ice.
Todosychuk, earning his ninth win, appears to be finding his groove after several injury setbacks. He finished with 27 saves, including several cross-crease desperation stops.
Desautels, who had 31 saves, was particularly strong in the opening 40 minutes.
SNAKE BITES: Second star Liam Coughlin assisted on two of Aldworth’s goals, and hit the post at the buzzer to end the second period…Finlay has goals in four straight games. Vernon leads the season series with West Kelowna 4-2.