The Vernon Vipers gave the Merritt Centennials an early Christmas gift Sunday afternoon in the form of a single point the home team had no business in accepting.
The Vipers let 6-0 and 7-2 leads slip away before securing two points with an 8-7 B.C. Hockey League shootout victory over the pesky hometown Centennials in front of 515 delirious fans at the Nicola Valley Memorial Arena.
Merritt forced overtime by scoring five goals in the final 8:14 of regulation time, and survived a too many men on the ice penalty in the first overtime period.
Connor Sleeth and Matt Kowalski scored in the shootout for the Vipers while goalie Reilly Herbst stopped three of four Centennials shooter to give Vernon its fourth straight win.
Kowalski remains on a torrid pace for Vernon. He scored 1:14 after the national anthem and added his second goal of the game at 19:08 of the first period, goals sandwiched around markers from Dawson Holt (12th of season) and Connor Marritt (10th) as the Snakes jumped out to a 4-0 lead after 20 minutes.
Kowalski has 19 goals on the season, 12 of them coming in his last 11 games. The Vernon product had 3+2 in the Vipers’ 8-3 win over the Cents Friday, Dec. 6, at Kal Tire Place.
Marritt scored his second of the game at 1:58 of the middle frame to chase Centennials starting goalie Ryan Winter. He added his hat trick goal at 17:40 on a powerplay to give Vernon what seemed like an insurmountable 6-0 lead.
Hunor Torzsok scored on a powerplay at 19:30 to give Merritt a glimmer of hope heading into the third period.
Torzsok scored at 5:07 of the third to make it 6-2 Vipers before defenceman Hunter Donohoe fired in his first of the year with the man advantage at 10:04 to give Vernon a five-goal cushion with half-a-period left in the game.
Cue the Centennials comeback.
Jerzy Orchard scored at 11:46, Chase Nameth got his first of two at 14:46, Torzsok scored his hat trick goal at 17:04, Nameth got Merritt to within a goal 39 seconds later and Rylan Van Unen capped the rally with the equalizer at 18:21.
Herbst finished with 41 saves
With the win, the Vipers (18-12-1-1) moved to within two points of the slumping third-place Salmon Arm Silverbacks (19-13-1-1) in the Interior Division with two games in hand on the Gorillas. Salmon Arm lost its eighth in a row Sunday, 5-0 to the Cowichan Valley Capitals in Duncan.
Vernon is two points up on the fifth-place Wenatchee Wild (16-14-3-1) with a pair of games in hand. The Vipers play the division-leading Penticton Vees in a home-and-home series this weekend.
The teams play Friday at 7 p.m. at Kal Tire Place and finish the twinbill at the South Okanagan Events Centre Saturday.