With half a dozen NHL scouts and former head coach Mark Ferner in the building, the Vernon Vipers nearly pitched a perfect game Wednesday night at Kal Tire Place.
The Snakes were stellar in every inch of the rink and used a tight defensive system in a 3-1 B.C. Hockey League win over the West Kelowna Warriors before 2,300 fans.
Austin Smith recorded 37 saves and came within 21 seconds of a shutout. Smith and the Warriors’ Andy Desautels are both Western League refugees who don’t give shooters much room.
“I thought their goalie played very well and was deserving of first star,” said West Kelowna head coach Rylan Ferster. “I thought we had some good initial chances but there were no second chances in a relatively tight game.
“Vernon did a good job getting pucks deep and did a good job on the rush both ways.”
Not much separates the two teams – they tied 2-2 a month ago at The Big Wheel – but the Vipers probably turned in their finest home performance of the season.
“That was just a 60-minute effort and that’s what we’ve been looking for all year,” said Viper d-man Jared Wilson, who pocketed two assists. “We kind of know what they’re all about. They’ve got some skilled forwards but if you play hard on those guys, they kind of go away. We were getting the right match-ups, guys were playing their roles and we shut ‘em down.”
Demico Hannoun scored once on a gorgeous toe-drag, and unselfishly fed linemate Michael McNicholas for an empty-netter with 52 seconds remaining as the Vipers improved to 20-9-3-4 in the Interior Division.
Mason Blacklock, who is slowly rounding into A-game shape after missing six weeks with injury, also scored for Vernon, while Texas product Jason Cotton replied for West Kelowna on a cheeky shot from the corner which bounced in off Smith’s rib cage and up over his shoulder.
“The puck was on edge when he shot. I bet he couldn’t do that again,” smiled Smith, who was gunning for his second shutout of the year.
The Warriors, who had won three straight, dipped to 18-12-1-2, good for a share of fourth spot in the wild Interior with the Merritt Centennials. The fast-paced, tight-checking affair was scoreless after 20 minutes. Hannoun got the only goal of the second period.
Desautels registered 25 saves, including a few dynamite stops as the Vipers pressed hard early in the first. The former Prince Albert Raider got a piece of McNicholas’ shot after the Viper leading pointgetter picked off a Seb Lloyd clearance offering and danced in alone.
Desautels also stymied TJ Dumonceaux on a shorthanded breakaway and looked sharp as McNicholas and Hannoun worked their magic in the final minute.
Fortis Energy Player of the Game Tyler Povelofskie had the crowd gasping when, instead of shooting from the mid slot, he fed a pass to the corner, midway through the opening 20. Povelofskie, Logan Mick and Michael Statchuk enjoyed several bold fourth-line shifts.
Smith, who was on injured reserve for a few weeks last month, is 9-6-3. He liked what he saw from the crease, where his finest moment was a glove-flashing stop off a Lloyd snapper.
“At first, I thought the bounces were going our way except for the last one there. We were working hard, we were getting pucks deep and cycling in the corner and creating chances. We did a pretty good job of keeping it outside and not allowing them to take it to the net and get too many scoring chances.”
The 20-year-old Calgary product says he can take his game to an even higher level.
“I’m working on getting my consistency down. Once we get back from Christmas break, I can definitely step it up another notch and push it from there.”
Warriors’ captain Matt Anholt, whose father Peter coached 17 years in the WHL, including two with the Kelowna Rockets, gave props to the Vipers.
“Vernon’s got a really good team, they’re really deep up front and on the back end, and you gotta give it up to Smith. He played really good and they scored on their opportunities and I guess we didn’t.”
On the divisional chase, which will see one seriously good team miss the playoffs, Anholt said: “It’s actually insane how good the top-five teams are, and Trail’s capable of winning games and taking some points from guys too. It’s a pretty good division.”
Anholt, who has a scholarship to Alaska-Anchorage, says the smaller Warriors want to be a hard forechecking team which utilizes its speed in the stretch run.
The Vipers are five points back of the first-place Penticton Vees and five ahead of the Salmon Arm SilverBacks. Vernon entertains the Powell River Kings (22-7-2-2) Saturday night before taking the Christmas break.
Wilson, obtained from the Alberni Valley Bulldogs for promising forward Craig Martin early in the season, figures the Vipers have the moxy for playoff glory.
“We definitely have top-end skill up front and we’ve got third and fourth lines that will outcompete any line in the league and a solid dee core and goaltending too so we have the whole package.”
He also realizes the real hockey starts after the 10-day holiday rest.
“Rosters kind of get finalized and the finish line is in everybody’s eyes.”
SNAKE BITES: Wilson took his first faceoff since Midget, moving up quickly from the point after a linesman twice called the Vipers’ line of Blacklock, Colton Sparrow and Liam Coughlin for movement. Wilson lost the faceoff…F Matty Saharchuk was a healthy scratch for Vernon, while the Warriors were without injured New Yorker Jordan Masters (15 goals, 31 points)…Detroit (2), Dallas, Anaheim, Colorado and Ottawa had scouts in attendance. Cotton, a Texas import, Hannoun and Blacklock are drawing the most NHL draft interest…Vipers’ monster d-man Mark Hamilton has gone home to Boston for shoulder surgery and will miss the rest of the regular season…McNicholas is third in the points derby with 19 goals and 50 points.