They’ve pushed their luck, skills, bodies and minds to the limit. And they’ve come out smiling with a 52-0 season to date.
After a gruelling weekend of playoff hockey at Civic Arena, the Vernon Coca-Cola Midget Tier 3 Vipers earned themselves a best-of-three Okanagan Mainline playoff final series with Clearwater with the winner moving to the provincials, March 18-22, in West Vancouver.
Game 1 in the Okanagan series is Friday (8 p.m.) at Civic with the second game scheduled for Saturday night in Clearwater. A Game 3, if necessary, would go Sunday, 2:45 p.m., at Civic Arena.
Also on the line is the Vipers’ unblemished record, one they intend on keeping intact after going 5-0 in the playoff tournament, stopping the Merritt Centennials 6-2 in the Sunday showdown before 150 parents, friends and foes.
Ethan Joe didn’t wait long to get the Snakes started, celebrating his birthday in style by scoring just 41 seconds in with a top-corner snipe off the rush.
Merritt, unfazed, tested starter Koltin Dodge shooting from everywhere in the first but the Vipers pushed back hitting two posts late in the frame in a fast paced start for both teams.
The Centennials earned their chances early in the second, pushing the Snakes hard for the equalizer and carrying the play, finally tying things up on the powerplay with a point shot through traffic that eluded Dodge at 9:56.
After the ice clean, Merritt nearly took the lead hitting the crossbar off an offensive zone faceoff at 7:56. Joe would have none of that on his big day, stealing the puck in the offensive zone and feeding Cole Johnson streaking in alone. Johnson slid a backhand short side just 33 seconds later to make it 2-1 Vernon.
The Vipers appeared energized by the snipe, and KT Walters, from Lincoln Connor, put the Coke crew up 3-1 with a shorthanded marker just under two minutes later with some spectacular work on the penalty kill. Walters increased the lead off a great second effort after firing a wrister before beating the d-man inside to his rebound and depositing a backhand chip over the sprawled tender.
Merritt cut the lead back to a deuce just 22 seconds later on another powerplay slapper from the point through a screen with 12:35 left. After a Centennial timeout at 4:02 of the third, The Vipers doubled down with Connor busting down the right wing and firing one low blocker with 2:47 to go. Mason Robinson finished the scoring with 22 seconds remaining.
Robinson, Joe and Johnson, with an empty netter, supplied the goals in a 3-0 win over South Okanagan Saturday morning.
It was Vernon’s toughest physical contest of the weekend. Dodge earned the shutout.
Vernon dispatched the Kamloops Blazers 7-2 Saturday night with Jadon Foster earning the win and Gavin Fleck scoring f0ur times, including a natural hat trick spanning the first and second periods. Walters, Dayton Bryan and Joe supplied singles.
“It was a really good test for us both physically and mentally,” said Vernon head coach Casey Sherriff. “Even when we faced some adversity of losing some key players, the boys answered the bell every time. In playoffs, it ultimately comes down to which team wants it more. And this weekend nobody wanted it more then us.”
Meanwhile, the North Zone Kings split their last regular-season Midget Tier 1 league games, bouncing the Thompson Blazers 3-1 Saturday and losing 3-2 to the Central Zone (Kelowna) Sunday afternoon.
The Kings trailed 1-0 after 20 minutes before Damian Coljee-Fehr batted a Joe Eggert rebound out of mid air. Caden Bracken’s first of two came near the end of second after cutting in over the blue line to rip one top shelf glove side. Later in the third, Bracken banked a shot off Dylan Huber’s shot.
In Sunday’s tilt, the Kings trailed Central in the second stanza until Huber tapped in from Bracken’s shot with Jaron Bootsma earning the other assist.
In the third period, Cameron McKenzie converted from the high slot with Bracken earning the assist.
Playoff weekend sees the Kings playing Central Zone Friday 10 a.m. before facing the Blazers at 6 p.m., both at the Sicamous Arena. The Kings then play South Zone (Penticton) Saturday, 4:45 p.m. at Rutland Arena. The top two teams play in the final Sunday, 3:30 p.m., at Memorial Arena in Kelowna. Winner advances to the provincials in Fort St John.
The Watkin Motors Mustangs ran the table on the weekend, notching five wins in the Okanagan Pee Wee Tier 2 playoff tournament in West Kelowna and Kelowna.
The Mustangs opened by icing the West Kelowna Warriors 8-5 behind hat tricks from Deagan McMillan and Erik Pastro in support of Austin Seibel.
“The boys came out to play,” said Mustangs’ head coach Taylor Wilson. “They controlled most of the game. It was a great way to start their playoff run.”
The Mustangs then went on a big run, crushing Kamloops 9-2, bottling up Kelowna 8-2 and ambushing Salmon Arm 7-1.
Balanced scoring, tough defence and great goaltending from Matthew Kuhnlein and Seibel helped the Mustangs dominate all three games.
Watkin Motors then went on to dismantle Penticton 9-2 score in their final contest on Sunday.
“We stuck to our systems and came out with a great finish to go 5-0 for the playoff round-robin,” said Wilson.
The Mustangs kick off a best-of-three series against West Kelowna on Friday, 5:30 p.m., at Civic Arena. Game 2 goes Saturday at Royal LePage Place (2:15 p.m.). A third game, if required, would be played Sunday, 12:30 p.m., at Civic.
In Atom B Rep play, the H&L Glass Jr. Vipers toppled host Kamloops 6-4 and lost 6-3 to Kelowna.
Teigan Kelley and Evan Kashuba each registered deuces against Kamloops with William Heighway and Maddy Fick supplying singles in front of a stellar Kasey Fusion.
Ollie Reid (2) and Kashuba converted in Saturday’s loss at Priest Valley Arena. Bryce Cormier was solid in goal.