They are first overall in the B.C. Hockey League, ranked 15th in the 132-team Canadian Junior A League and showing extreme signs of a long playoff run.
The Vernon Vipers go into the Christmas layover in a pretty festive mood. They stretched their winning streak to four games by upending the Trail Smoke Eaters 5-2 before 1,885 fans Saturday night at Kal Tire Place.
Rookie forward Josh Prokop, a Ohio State Buckeye commit, pulled his third hat trick of the season and was named the BCHL Player of the Week. He also added one assist, giving him a seven-point weekend on the dynamite Triple-J line with Jagger Williamson and Jesse Lansdell.
Vernon has 25 wins and 55 points atop the Interior Division, six points ahead of the Wenatchee Wild and seven up on the Penticton Vees.
The Vipers have 21 games remaining, including 11 in January. They face the last-place Salmon Arm Silverbacks in a home and home series starting Friday, Dec. 29 at the Shaw Centre. The Silverbacks lost 10-2 to the Wild before 3,179 fans Saturday in Wenatchee.
Assistant coach Kevin Kraus took control of the bench with Mark Ferner scouting a Midget tournament in Phoenix and was naturally happy with the winning weekend.
“I know it’s tough this time of the year: Christmas is looming and the head coach is away,” said Kraus. “It can go one of two ways and I’m glad they chose the right way.”
Kraus said it’s fairly easy to step in and run this ultra talented group because of the structure in place and a deep bench.
As for the Triple J unit, Kraus says they earn every point they are given.
“They work hard and if we’re maybe not having much energy, they go out and it starts with Lansdell just laying the body and Jagger follows and then Josh is right behind them. They have the ability to put the puck in the back of the net so that’s a pretty deadly combination if you can play physical and finish.”
Said Lansdell: “We had a game-plan and we stuck to it and played simple. The biggest thing is everyone’s on the same page.”
The Vipers, who wore their red ugly Christmas jerseys, struck first Saturday after a number of good shifts to start the game as Williamson set up Prokop at 11:27. Vernon product Blaine Caton replied for the Smokies with his seventh on a powerplay with 21 seconds left in the opening period.
The Vipers had a solid second period and generated a lot of quality chances, but ran into some great goaltending by Adam Marcoux. Prokop tapped in a loose puck with eight seconds to play in the middle stanza. Trail’s only serious chance came on a 2-on-1 with Anthony Yamnitsky recording the stop.
Ryan Murphy snapped a shot five hole on Yamnitsky to level the score 2:32 into the final 20 minutes.
Lansdell finished off some nifty passing plays for his ninth of the year six minutes later on the powerplay. Just 80 seconds later, Niko Karamanis banked a puck in off Marcoux from below the red line to make it 4-2. Prokop hit the empty net with 38 seconds remaining.
Caton, a former Viper, says the Smokies, who slipped from first to fourth place in the last five weeks, are stoked about the new year after going through some adversity. They were again without leading scorers Russ Armour and Kale Howarth, a Columbus Blue Jacket draft.
Armour and Vernon’s Brett Stapley were helping Team Canada West ice the Americans 5-1 Saturday for gold in the World Junior A Hockey Challenge in Nova Scotia, while Howarth was home in Red Deer focussing on some school work. Armour rang up four tournament goals, while Stapley had three.
“He’s (Howarth) coming back on the 27th,” said Caton. “Those two give us such a different element of attack. They’re the two best players in the league. We had seven forwards hurt at one time so we’ve been playing with nine forwards and two (affiliates) APs and we’ve never really recovered from that. It’s probably good we went through this adversity at this point of the season.”
SNAKE BITES: Former Viper F Zack Andrusiak registered his 17th snipe of the season as the Seattle Thunderbirds stopped the host Spokane Chiefs 10-3 in WHL play Sunday night. Andrusiak, 19, has 30 points in 33 games…Vernon’s Michael Lenoury, a D, has 3-6-9 with the Junior B Nelson Leafs, who lead the Neil Murdoch Division with 21 wins…The Kelowna Chiefs iced the North Okanagan Knights 3-1 in Junior B action Saturday night at Nor-Val Sports Centre in Armstrong. Dean Whitcomb scored for the Knights, who are 11 points behind the Chiefs for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Okanagan Division. Zack Willms made 35 saves to earn MVP for the Knights, who host the Chiefs Friday night.