Akito Hirose of the Salmon Arm Silverbacks tries to take Keyvan Mokhtari of the Vernon Vipers off the puck during the second of a home and home BCHL series before 2,500 fans Saturday night at Kal Tire Place. (Lisa Mazurek/Morning Star)

Vipers, Silverbacks tweak rosters

The Vernon Vipers and Salmon Arm Silverbacks tweaked their rosters for the BCHL stretch run

The Salmon Arm Silverbacks closed 2017 by snapping an eight-game losing skid, while the Vernon Vipers had a five-game winning streak curtailed.

The Silverbacks used a dramatic third-period comeback for a stunning 4-3 victory over the Snakes before 2,500 B.C. Hockey League fans Saturday night at Kal Tire Place.

Vernon, first overall in the 17-team BCHL, dipped to 26-8-1-4, while Salmon Arm, last in the Interior Division, improved to 13-21-3-0. They moved within four points of sixth-place Merritt Centennials for the sixth and final playoff berth.

Ranked 15th in the Canadian Junior A Hockey League, the Vipers tweaked their roster earlier Saturday, getting even faster as they eye the Royal Bank Cup championships, May 12-21, in Chilliwack.

Vernon pulled a swap of forwards, sending 20-year-old Brandon Whistle to the Silverbacks for 19-year-old Josh Latta. Neither veteran played Saturday night.

Latta, a West Vancouver resident, registered seven goals and 11 points in 18 games with the Silverbacks this season. The 5-foot-11 175-pounder is in his third year in the BCHL.

“He’s a skilled forward,” said Viper captain Jagger Williamson. “We got more scoring and more depth. He’s gonna help. He’s a smart player, a small fast winger.”

Whistle, who had three assists in 16 games since coming to Vernon from the AJHL Bonnyville Pontiacs, became expendable when d-man Cameron Trott, 20, left the University of Alaska-Anchorage and re-joined the Vipers. Teams can only carry six 20-year-olds.

“Josh was a very good player for us but we are looking to play a bit of a heavier game,” said Salmon Arm head coach Scott Atkinson, “A bigger stronger forward fits our game-plan more than a smaller speedier guy at this point.”

D-man Joe Leahy was a minute muncher and handled the puck well in his first game with the Silverbacks. The towering Waterloo, Ont. product wore No. 7. He was obtained in a Thursday swap which saw the Silverbacks send forward Marcus Mitchell to the Penticton Vees. Leahy, 20, is committed to Cornell University for next fall and had one goal and 13 points with 30 penalty minutes in 27 games with the Vees this season.

“We think we got a lot better,” added Atkinson. “We had to give some stuff up to get some good stuff. Leahy’s a big piece for us. We are very sorry to see Marcus leave the program but felt that our team’s most immediate need was to shore up our defence.”

Mitchell, of Kelowna, played 122 games over two-and-a-half seasons with the Gorillas, ringing up 27 goals, 61 points and 161 penalty minutes. Mitchell is off to Michigan Tech next season.

Vernon shut out the Silverbacks 4-0 Friday night at the Shaw Centre and resumed their dominance by taking a 2-0 first-period margin Saturday.

Williamson wired a rebound of a Jesse Lansdell shot past goalie Reid Cooper in tight, just 96 seconds after the national anthem. Williamson has 14 snipes on the season.

Fortis Energy Player of the Game Keyvan Mohktari made it 2-0 on a powerplay by wiring a shot from the left hash marks past Cooper for his 11th of the season. Sam Anzai drew the assist.

Vernon d-man Shane Kelly missed a glorious chance to extend the lead but shot wide after a nifty pass from Lansdell.

There was no scoring in the middle stanza with Vernon outshooting Salmon Arm 12-6.

The Silverbacks hung in tough and refused to surrender, earning some life 2:12 into third period when Nick Unruh popped in a loose puck on a scramble in front of Viper net detective Anthony Yamnitsky. Assists went to Justin Wilson and Grayson Constable.

Vernon rookie Connor Marritt finished a sweet bang-bang play with Alex Swetlikoff and Coleton Bilodeau just 57 seconds later.

The Silverbacks, who went 1-for-7 on the powerplay while giving the Vipers four chances with the man advantage, pulled to within one again eight minutes later when Constable buried a shot from ‘gimme range’ after Yamnitsky had made two fabulous leg saves in tight. Akito Hirose and Unruh pocketed helpers.

The Silverbacks equalized on the goal of the night 93 seconds later when Rhett Kingston sped up the right flank, cut to the middle and somehow snuck through d-men Trott and Chris Jandric before ringing a heavy snapper off the right post and crossbar. That beauty brought loud applause from the busload of Silverback supporters. It was Kingston’s 12th of the year.

“I’ve tried that move before, but it’s never worked,” smiled Kingston, a native of Okotoks, Alta. “It was good timing for us.”

Kingston fed Tanner Campbell at the right point for the winning goal at 16:18. There was 24 seconds left in Mohktari’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“Give them respect,” said Williamson. “They came back hard. They fought for every piece of ice they got and kind of took it to us in the third period.”

Added Trott: “That one’s on us. We got off to a good start and then kind of stopped playing. We got away from the things that make us who we are. We’ve got to stop that. We got a little ahead of ourselves.”

Atkinson, in his rookie campaign with the Silverbacks, feels the win will help bring better things in 2018.

“I don’t think you ever see those (comebacks) things coming. That’s a good team on the other side so when they get up on you, they’re tough to play against and I thought our guys showed some character and were able to chip away at it.

“Our guys are encouraged by the changes. We’re committed to getting better and we’re trying to make the playoffs, and by adding pieces, we have the opportunity to win more consistently. We want to get in the playoffs and see what happens.”

Kingston fully believes the next few months will be joyful for the Silverbacks.

“We got Joe Leahy from Penticton and that’s a huge pick-up for us. He’s a great player. We broke our losing streak so that’s huge so now we can hopefully get on a roll. Our goal is to make the playoffs in a very good spot. We’re gonna make a comeback for the rest of the season. We’re going to get in the playoffs and make it happen.”

Trott, who played part of last season with Salmon Arm, left the NCAA Division 1 Seawolves after collecting three points in 10 games. The Seawolves are last in the WCHA at 1-8-3.

“I didn’t feel it was the best place for me and obviously, out here is a very good team,” said the product of Anmore, B.C. (near Port Moody). “I took my time and made sure I was making the right call. I’ll have a good opportunity to move on with this team so I’m excited for what’s to come.”

Vernon entertains the Merritt Centennials, while Salmon Arm hosts the Wenatchee Wild in action Friday night. The Vipers battle the Prince George Spruce Kings in a retro game Saturday night at Civic Arena, pegged for demolition later this year.

In other Saturday play, the Wild dispatched the Penticton Vees 3-1, while the Trail Smoke Eaters grounded the West Kelowna Warriors 6-3.

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