While the scoresheet stated the Vernon Vipers hosted the West Kelowna Warriors on Saturday night at Kal Tire Place, with seven Vernon regulars out of the lineup, it was an uphill battle from the opening faceoff.
Despite that challenge, the Vipers were in it to the end, pressing for the tying goal into the last minute with an empty net, before falling 2-1.
The Vipers entire top line was out, as were four others, with injury, suspension or invites to play for Canada West in the World Junior A Challenge. Alex Swetlikoff and Jack Judson are set to play Sunday at 6 p.m. against the United States.
West Kelowna’s Lucas Cullen was the offensive power on the night, as he scored two goals and racked up plenty of possession minutes. His first came 3:21 into the second period after he pounced on a loose puck.
Vernon’s Teddy Wooding scored the lone Vernon goal on a play that was pure hustle at 17:26 of the second. He swooped in deep on the penalty kill and posted the wrap-around after Matt Kowalski’s forecheck resulted in the turnover.
West Kelowna pulled ahead with just over five minutes left in the third on a desperation clear-out by Chase Dubois that Cullen caught up to and buried on a quick shot to the far side.
It was clear early on that West Kelowna’s strategy was to pour relentless pressure on the defenders with aggressive forechecking to force turnovers.
It’s not the flashy part of the game. You don’t often see effective forechecking on the highlights. But, without that push and the resulting turnovers, you wouldn’t see the goals that actually make the highlights.
Vipers forward Josh Latta briefly turned his brain off after the whistle midway through the third when he decided to make a move and a light deke, which resulted in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Lucky for him, West Kelowna retaliated and got a crosschecking penalty to offset the infraction.
It was a fast first period, with West Kelowna having the most A-grade scoring chances. Vernon had issues with defensive zone board battles, which led to many second chances for the Warriors.
The ice seemed to be choppy with few tape-to-tape passes, although the Vipers did manage two stretch passes that could have been dangerous but West Kelowna defenders were able to shut down the plays.
Vipers goaltender Bradley Cooper seemed to struggle with puck visibility as he mishandled two high glove-side catch attempts in the first period, but he settled down after that and made two brilliant saves in the third to keep it a one-goal game.
West Kelowna was less than a second away from opening the scoring in the first, but their apparent goal came just after the buzzer went after the first 20 minutes.
Shots were 9-8 West Kelowna after one and 20-17 after two, with the final tally 34-29 for West Kelowna.
The Warriors improved to 19-14-0-1 and 39 points while the Vipers fell to 11-12-6-3 and 31 points.
The Vipers next play in Trail on Wednesday night, while West Kelowna hosts Coquitlam on Tuesday night.