The Vernon Vipers open the B.C. Hockey League Interior Division best-of-seven semifinal series Friday night against the Penticton Vees.
Game 2 in the Ford Road to the Cup series goes Saturday night at the South Okanagan Events Centre. Games 3 and 4 shift to Kal Tire Place Tuesday, March 8 and the following Wednesday night.
The Vipers waited until their final regular-season game Saturday night to grab the fourth playoff berth in the Interior, slamming the Trail Smoke Eaters 7-2 before 2,113 fans at Cominco Arena.
Vernon and the Merritt Centennials, 4-3 winners over the visiting Wenatchee Wild, both finished with 51 points. The Vipers took fourth with 24 wins, one more than the Cents. The Smokies finished last, three points back of Vernon and Merritt.
Alternate captain Liam Finlay broke through with 3+1 as the Vipers spotted the Smokies an early goal by Bennett Morrison, his first of the season, before producing powerplay snipes two minutes apart and taking a 4-1 first-period lead. It was 6-1 Snakes after 40 minutes.
Jimmy Lambert supplied his 15th snipe of the season, on the powerplay, six minutes after Morrison scored 76 seconds after the anthem. Finlay made it 2-1 on another powerplay and he connected again, three minutes later, making it 3-1. Tufto, with his team-high 25th, pushed it to 4-1 at 15:09.
“We told our guys last night (Friday, after 8-1 loss to Wenatchee) that our best players had to be our best players tonight and they were,” said Viper assistant coach Kevin Kraus, on the KISS-FM post-game show. “We got it done on the power play and that set us up for the rest of the night.”
D-man Bo Pellah anchored the point on the powerplay and finished with four assists, giving him 38 points on the year, third best on the Vipers.
Captain Colton McCarthy, with his 21st, and Nick Rasovic, with his first, counted goals nine minutes apart in the second period. Kale Howarth netted his 12th for Trail with 5:35 left in the third.
Andrew Shortridge recorded 34 saves for his 19th win of the year. Starter Bailey McBurnie was replaced by rookie Landen Marshall after 40 minutes.
The Vees finished first overall in the 17-team BCHL with 50 wins and 101 points. They are only the fifth team in league history to post 50 victories.
Scott Conway, who played NCAA Division 1 hockey for the Penn State Nitany Lions last year, led the Vees with 56 goals and 116 points, tops in the league. Penticton’s Tyson Jost, tabbed to go among the first 20 picks in this June’s NHL entry draft in Buffalo, was third in league scoring with 42 goals and 103 points.
Vees’ d-man Dante Fabbro, also a projected NHL first-rounder, led all blueliners with 14 goals and 66 points. Both Fabbro and Jost were first-round choices in the WHL Bantam Draft.