Vipers can claim Interior title tonight

The weekend’s task is clear for the Vernon Vipers, but the outcome is hardly a gimme.

The weekend’s task is clear for the Vernon Vipers, but the outcome is hardly a gimme.

Win tonight at Wesbild Centre against the Trail Smoke Eaters, or Sunday afternoon against the visiting Quesnel Millionaires and the Interior Conference pennant will remain in Vernon for a third straight season.

Along with it would come a bye in the first round of the B.C. Hockey League playoffs.

The league-leading Powell River Kings helped take some pressure off Vernon by grounding the Salmon Arm SilverBacks 4-1 Wednesday night at Hap Parker Arena. Combined with the Penticton Vees 5-4 win over the Westside Warriors, the second Interior seed is also up for grabs.

The Vees (37-17-2-2) sit two points ahead of the ‘Backs (37-18-2), who have a game in hand.

The second-place finisher will meet Quesnel (13-25-3-6) in a best-of-seven series, the other will tangle with the Merritt Centennials (21-30-1-6).

The Warriors (31-20-2-5) will have home-ice advantage in their 4-versus-5 first-round series with the Smokies (31-21-2-4).

While a bye would give the Vipers (34-11-4-9) a chance to rest any nagging injuries, head coach Mark Ferner said it is just as important to hit the postseason with the right mind set.

“If we finish first, great, but we’ve got to be ready for the playoffs.”

Following two lacklustre performances last week, Ferner liked how his team rebounded with a 5-2 win over the host Centennials Tuesday night.

The postage-stamp playing surface of Nicola Valley Arena helped bring some urgency to the Vipers, who were led by a pair of 20-year-olds – first star defenceman Malcolm Lyles and second star forward Bryce Kakoske – each with three-point nights.

“We were a little tentative early, but we got better and started to take the game over,” said Ferner. “Things happen in a hurry in that rink and you’ve got to be ready to make plays.”

Following last Friday’s OT loss to Merritt, Lyles said Tuesday night provided a bit of relief and a measure of revenge, all rolled into one.

“It’s nice to come up with a strong effort against a team that has given us so much trouble,” said Lyles.

The Miami Gardens, Fla. product flattened a Merritt defender on the rush before dishing the puck to Colton Sparrow, who fed Marcus Basara (12th) for a one-timer that beat Lino Chimienti five-hole to tie the game 1-1 at 16:57.

The Centennials opened the scoring at the two-minute mark as Sean Maktaak (sixth goal) beat a screened Kirby Halcrow stick side on a powerplay.

The Vipers used powerplay markers two minutes apart by John Knisley (10th) and David Robinson, with his team-leading 30th goal, to take control in the second period.

“I don’t know the last time we scored two powerplay goals in a game,” said Ferner.

The answer – Jan. 22 against the Coquitlam Express.

Vernon’s powerplay has been clicking well above its No. 12 regular-season ranking (18.75 per cent) of late. They have man-advantage goals in each of their last five games, scoring on six of 19 attempts for a respectable 31.57 per cent.

Said Lyles: “It was especially good to get those in a small rink like Merritt. We’ve really tightened up on the little things. It’s good to see it coming together.”

The Smokies will try to end a three-game losing streak tonight. All three losses were one-goal games, two of them in overtime.

“They’ll probably be a little angry because they’ve been going through a dry spell,” said Lyles.

“As we already know, there is nothing more frustrating than losing in overtime.

“But we’ll be ready. It’ll definitely be a show.”

Regan Soquila (20th) made it a one-goal game at 9:42 of the third period, but Dylan Walchuk (24th) replied 14 seconds later to restore Vernon’s two-goal cushion. Third star Dane Muench created the play with some tight work in the corner before setting up Walchuk for a five-hole strike.

Kakoske completed the offence by creating a turnover on the forecheck and beating Chimienti for his 16th goal.

SNAKE BITES: Alex Gillies, a Vernon product who plays Major Midget with the Okanagan Rockets, has been added to the WHL Kamloops Blazers 50-man protected list. In 36 games, the 5-foot-11, 175-pound forward has posted 16-14-30 and 20 penalty minutes… Former Viper Kyle St. Denis recorded 2+1 to earn third star as the Victoria Grizzlies stuffed the Cowichan Valley Capitals 5-1 Wednesday night at Bear Mountain Arena. The 20-year-old Trail product, who also played with the WHL Kelowna Rockets, has 22 points in a dozen games since being dealt to Victoria by the Vipers in November.