– With files from Tyler Lowey
Play his final six games as a Vernon Viper and head to Alaska for college hockey with a Royal Bank Cup ring on his finger.
It’s a mid-May bucket list that forward Colton Sparrow, the heart and soul of the Vipers, is determined to pull off.
The 20-year-old winger, a work of art on the art of work, scored three times and used his unique shot-blocking style on several clutch penalty kills as the Vipers built up a 5-0 lead and hung on for a 6-4 win over the Yorkton Terriers in Royal Bank Cup preliminary action Monday night before 2,500 noisy fans at Kal Tire Place.
Sparrow was a rock star on the penalty kill and finished his checks all over the rink as the Vipers improved to 1-1 in the five-team national Junior A hockey championships. Vernon met the West No. 2 seeded Dauphin Kings of Manitoba Tuesday night. Yorkton dropped to 0-2 and battle the Carleton Place Canadians of Ottawa this afternoon.
“It’s my hometown and also getting a crack at this tournament three, four years back, and coming short, it still to this day, stings,” said Sparrow, named Game MVP in Vernon’s opening 3-2 loss Saturday to the Canadians. “I don’t want that feeling again and I’m gonna do everything I can to make sure it’s gold this year.”
Sparrow saluted his parents, Jed and Christine, in Section A, after he opened the Viper scoring for the second straight game. He raised his stick in thanks to the fans moments after his sweet empty-netter, with 43 seconds remaining.
Viper head coach Jason Williamson went with seven defenceman and 11 forwards with Sparrow’s regular linemate, Brendan Persely, on injured reserve. Sparrow and Brett Mulcahy went out with a number of different right wingers. D-man Kenny Citron returned to the lineup after missing the entire BCHL final series.
Williamson knew Sparrow, who has a team-high 11 goals and 25 points in the post-season, would bring more energy and grit to the RBC after an average regular season.
“I’ve just gotta get him on the ice as much as I can because when he’s on the ice, good things happen. This probably matters more to him than anyone in that locker room, or anyone in this tournament.”
Viper centre Michael McNicholas, who posted the eventual winner and added an assist, loves seeing the guy they call ‘Spares’ ruling the playoffs.
“Unbelievable,” said McNicholas. “He’s been our best player all playoffs and he’s keeping that going. It’s so nice to see that from a guy like him, a hometown kid. He’s been great.”
Sparrow was the best player on the ice, but The Player of the Game voting committee chose to spread the hardware around and selected Liam Coughlin of the Vipers.
Vernon exploded for three goals in 41 seconds, early in the second period, with Coughlin connecting on the powerplay to ignite the fireworks 51 seconds into the session. Mulcahy scored, high, glove side, 17 seconds later and Sparrow made it 4-0 just 24 seconds later, poking in a puck sitting behind Yorkton goalie Kale Thompson, after a Riley Guenther blast from the point.
McNicholas converted from the mid slot, 2:16 later, for Vernon’s third straight even-strength goal, chasing Thompson, who was replaced by Nanaimo product Riley Medves. Thompson recorded the saves of the night with seconds left in the first, stoning Dexter Dancs from in close and then somehow getting his glove on Riley Gunther’s rebound attempt.
Sparrow opened the Snakes’ offence midway through the first period on a high wrister from the mid slot after a sweet feed by Mulcahy on the left wall.
Yorkton’s leading playoff sniper, Brett Boehm, finally solved Viper goalie Austin Smith, with 4:28 left in the second period on a wrister that deflected off a Viper in front. It was Boehm’s first of the tournament, and 20th of the post-season. He took a marvellous stretch pass from d-man Brady Norris shortly after, but was angled off nicely by d-man Josh Bryan on the partial breakaway.
Dylan Johnson of the Terriers connected 23 seconds into a Coughlin tripping penalty early in the third, while four minutes later, Tanner Lishchynsky buried a feed from ex-Viper Riley Hunt, with Michael Statchuk off for high sticking. Yorkton went 2-for-8 on the powerplay.
Williamson, sensing another collapse witnessed by fans in both home games against the Coquitlam Express in the BCHL Fred Page Cup series, called a timeout to remind his troops to relax.
That strategy worked for two minutes. Tyson Enzie went top shelf, on a pass from Kelowna’s Josh Ellis, to pull the West champions within a snipe.
With Medves on the bench for a sixth attacker and the Terriers pressing, Sparrow took the puck to the Yorkton blueline, used a gorgeous toe drag to elude defenceman Devon McMullen along the boards, skated in and deposited the insurance tally.
“Our energy kind of got snuffed out,” said Sparrow, on the third-period collapse. “We have to get better at closing games out. They got one and we started to panic. They got two and things were kind of hairy on the bench. We kind of got our composure back for a few shifts and got it done.”
Williamson said panic mode set in again when the Terriers got within three.
“It’s tough because our group’s been reeling. They’ve lost five in a row if you go back to that Coquitlam series, and I think that panic set in again. ‘Oh, no, here it comes again.’ But we hung on and we won and there are things to learn and positives to take from it. Get on the back of Colton Sparrow, obviously.”
Yorkton head coach Trent Cassan will take an encouraging third period and use it for motivation as the Terriers, who struggled out of the gate at the Western Canada Cup before winning the title last week in Dauphin, meet the Canadians in a Wednesday matinee.
“It was a real good push-back by our guys and we didn’t quit. You just can’t put yourself in a situation like that against the teams that are here and expect to come back from five. It was close, but that four minutes, you just can’t let games get away from you like that.”
Added Cassan: “Until they tell us we’re eliminated, we’re going to keep going. The second half was encouraging. At least tonight, we can take more character out of this game than we did Sunday (loss to Toronto Lakeshore Patriots).”
McMullen, a smooth-skating 20-year-old captain, says the Terriers are not holding any pity parties after two losses. The Game MVP said they went 1-1 to start the Westerns but could have easily been 0-2.
“I have full faith that we’re gonna come back in this tournament and play some good hockey and get to 2-2 or 1-3 and find a way to get in the playoffs. We all have faith in each another in our room. No one’s getting too low. We’re just gonna keep our heads high and keep going.”
Vernon lost captain/defenceman Ryan Renz with 8:52 left in the second period for a hit to McMullen’s head.
Hunt, a Revelstoke product who started the season playing Junior B in Summerland, said the Terriers started getting traffic in front of Smith for success in the final 20 minutes.
“We got ourselves in trouble early in the second, but I’m proud of the guys,” said Hunt, headed to Harvard in 2015. “We pushed back pretty hard; it wasn’t enough but if we carry that over into the next game, we’ll be fine.
He wasn’t surprised by anything he saw from the Vipers, who finished seventh overall in the BCHL, at 30-18-4-6.
“It was what we expected. They’re a good hockey team and if you give them odd-man rushes like we did for that five-minute period, they’re gonna capitalize. I thought we outplayed them in the third period, but you have to play a full 60 minutes to beat a team like that.”
The Vipers finish preliminary play Thursday night against the Toronto Lakeshore Patriots (1-1). Vernon lost their fifth straight RBC opener, 3-2 to Carleton Place. They went on to win four of those RBC tourneys.
The Vipers came out Saturday night before 2,800 fans like they had not played in nearly a month and it showed.
Everybody was finishing their checks, passes were crisp and on point, and the maroon jerseys were a blur on the ice. Tyler Povelofskie lowered the early boom on Canadians’ defenceman Rowan Savidant. The crushing blow led to an immediate scoring chance, but Guillaume Therien was sharp all night for Carleton. Vipers’ forward Demico Hannoun was forechecking like a man possessed, forcing multiple turnovers.
The Vipers’ best chance in the scoreless first came when Sparrow had the puck below the right faceoff circle. With the entire top half of the net to shoot at, he struck iron.
Vipers’ co-MVP Dancs got called for high-sticking, six minutes into the second when the Vipers struck.
Dylan Chanter chipped the puck high off the glass, sending the Vipers on a rush.
“I noticed that their team looks for seams across the ice. I saw their d-man back tracking, I read it, picked it up and buried it,” said Sparrow, who sniped one top-shelf, sending Kal Tire Place into a madhouse.
“For us to be able to come back from giving up two shorthanded goals just proves what kind of team character we have here,” said Canadians’ head coach Jason Clarke.
Dylan Gareau tied it 47 seconds into the third, when he spun in the slot and wired it home from Brett D’Andrea. Gareau’s goal set the tone for a chaotic period.
The turning point occurred when Bryan caught Anthony Latina with his head down in the neutral zone. Bryan rocked his world on a hit which will be debated for the rest of the tournament. Latina was helped off the ice and did not return.
“I thought the hit was a cheap shot; there is no room for that kind of hit,” said Clarke.
Bryan was slapped with a five-minute major and a game misconduct.
“The refs said it was a late hit, they said they gave the penalty because of the injury,” said Williamson. “I did not think it was late.”
Said Renz: “Josh finishes his checks with his shoulder all the time. I don’t think there was an intent to injure.”
Adam Lloyd capitalized for Carleton during the man advantage, as he banged a loose puck over the left pad of Smith. It was Lloyd’s first of the postseason.
It appeared as if the Canadians added another on the major, but it was quickly waived off by the officials. This seemed to wake up the Vipers, as Dumonceaux won a battle at his blue line and was off to the races on a 2-on-1 rush, flanked by Hannoun.
Dumonceaux held onto the puck as long as he could before sending a blistering pass to Hannoun, who one-timed it home. Vinny Post put the Snakes on ice, from Owen Stewart and Luke Edwards, with four and a half minutes remaining.
Post snuck behind the defence, received the puck and patiently out-waited sprawling defenders and Smith for a yawning cage.
“We had some sustained pressure down low, we worked from the walls pretty good. Stewart made a great pass to me, I was in the right spot at the right time. I had to put that one in,” said Post.
The teams attend the tournament awards banquet Friday night. The semifinals go Saturday with Sunday’s final at 4:30 p.m.