Vipers ready for 2014

The Vernon Vipers visit the Trail Smoke Eaters tonight and host the Nanaimo Clippers Saturday night.

Morning Star Staff

Vernon Vipers’ head coach Jason Williamson didn’t let his players take home their full equipment over the Christmas Break.

Gloves, skates and helmets only; just enough to keep their legs fresh.

“They needed to recharge and come back ready to go to work,” said Williamson, who is in Calgary this week scouting the annual Mac’s Midget tournament. He watched the Okanagan Rockets battle Saskatchewan’s Notre Dame Argos Tuesday afternoon.

There is potentially a lot of hockey between now and the RBC Cup, which the Vipers are hosting in May. Williamson said a little extra reprieve over the break could help down the stretch.

“It’ll take a couple of games to get back in shape, but they’re a pretty focussed group and there’s meaningful games right away,” he said.

Vernon enters the New Year ranked second in the Interior Division and fifth overall, at 20-10-3-4. They visit the last-overall Trail Smoke Eaters (7-28-2-2) for a tune-up tilt Friday at Cominco Arena.

“They’ll come back energized too,” said Williamson, of Trail.

“They haven’t had a lot of success, but they’re a hard-working team and they’ve had teams on the ropes.”

The Smokies blew a 3-1 lead Monday night and lost 4-3 in overtime to the West Kelowna Warriors before 1,100 fans at Cominco Arena.

Liam Blackburn bagged the winner at 4:07 of OT. Detroit Red Wing draft David Pope, with a deuce, and Tyson Dallman, completed the West Kelowna offence.

Bryan Basilico (2) and Braden Fuller replied for the Smokies.

“We played well enough to win,” said Smoke Eater coach Nick Deschenes. “But give Kelowna credit, they pressed hard right to the end. There’s a certain way to play to win, and that’s what our group is learning, and the biggest thing is that we learn these lessons and we don’t just let them repeat themselves.”

Yet, rather than putting an emphasis on defence, the Smokies are going on the offensive.

“Where we are at now is in attack mode, I like to call it,” said Deschenes. “We are going to push the pace against these teams. They may be expecting an easy game, and they’re expecting to score lots of goals, and this is where we are going to take that vulnerability and hopefully capitalize and shock some teams.”

The Vipers hold a two-point lead over the Warriors for second spot in the Interior division, and are five points back of division leaders Penticton. The Snakes are led by Mike McNicholas, who sits fourth in BCHL scoring with 19-32-51, Demico Hannoun, and Mason Blacklock. The trio combined for six points in their last meeting with Trail, all netting a goal and as assist.

The Smokies, meanwhile, have just three 20-year-old players remaining in their lineup in defenceman Braden Pears, leading scorer Travis Stephens, and goaltender Dustin Nikkel. Although the team can carry a maximum of five 20-year-olds, Deschenes says that it is unlikely the team will look for any over-age players before the Jan. 10 trade deadline, but rather to enhance the opportunity of the remaining players.

“The benefit we can give our 20 year olds right now, being put in that leadership role, is the opportunity to play substantial minutes, which I think both of them appreciate, and to work with them and help promote them for their opportunities for next season,” said Deschenes.

The Snakes entertain the Nanaimo Clippers (19-18-0-1) Saturday at Kal Tire Place.

Williamson said Mike Vandekamp’s Clippers are always a tough test. They have just one point-a-game player (Brendan Taylor has 12-24-36 in 37 games), but they are backed by solid netminding from Jayson Argue.

Despite a mediocre 16-13 record, the 20-year-old Swan River, Man. native has the third-best save percentage (.925) in the BCHL.

“He shut us out last time (3-0 loss on Oct. 19 in Nanaimo),” said Williamson. “But we’ve done a good job of getting to goalies of late and making it hard on them.”

Said Vandekamp after Nanaimo’s 5-2 win over the Cowichan Valley Capitals just before the Christmas break: “We have lots of passion and lots of heart… It’s not that we don’t have it,” said Mike Vandekamp after the game. “We just don’t bring it all the time and that might be the frustrating thing.”

Vernon minor hockey grads Colten Dahlen (5-5-10) and Spencer Hewson (4-6-10) are with the Clippers. Dahlen, a defenceman, is in his third season, while Hewson is a rookie forward.

The Vipers have 21 games remaining, including 11 in January. They visit the Penticton Vees next Friday night.