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Vipers ready for playoff push

The Vernon Vipers are so done with the 20-day B.C. Hockey League first-round playoff bye.

Since they last played a hockey game, the Vernon Vipers tried curling and held a skills competition in between regular practices and gym workouts. They are so done with the 20-day B.C. Hockey League playoff bye.

The Vipers can’t wait to get the post-season dance going and it will be especially sweet for captain Riley Brandt as Vernon faces the Trail Smoke Eaters. Game 1 in the best-of-seven, second-round series goes Friday night at Kal Tire Place.

Brandt is from Trail and started his career with the Smokies four years ago. His first cousin is Smokie forward Spencer McLean and he is good buddies with d-man Jeremy Lucchini and forwards Ross Armour and Connor Brown-Maloski.

“It will be interesting and a lot of fun since I’ve got lots of family and friends coming from Trail,”said Brandt, the fiery captain who missed half the season with injury and suspension. “Brown-Maloski is their captain and he just won the player-of-the-week (4+2 in three playoff games against the Salmon Arm Silverbacks) and they’ve got a couple of good lines and some good puck-moving defencemen with some skill in Luccini and (Mitch) Stapley. They’re not an overly big team but they’re aggressive.”

Brandt, one of the fiercest hitters in the league, says the Vipers have been watching video of the Smokies to note their systems and tendencies. He says the Snakes are stoked for the playoffs, where there isn’t much difference between the four remaining Interior Division teams.

“It’s awesome; this is what you want all year, it’s like Christmas is coming. We’re all healed up and ready to go.”

Brown-Maloski rang up at least one goal in all five games versus the Silverbacks, getting 6-3-9. Trail d-man Carter Cochrane received a POW honourable mentions with 1+6. Cochrane, a 20-year-old free-wheeler with sweet hands, is with his fourth BCHL team after having a cup of mocha with Everett Silvertips and Vancouver Giants of the WHL. He is the playoff’s leading pointgetter with a dozen.

The Smokies boast one of the more productive forward units in the league in Luke Santerno (33 goals, 64 points), Kale Howarth (30G, 58PTS) and Josh Laframboise (25-28-53). Santerno is a Smithers product committed to the NCAA Bentley Falcons, while Howarth hails from Red Deer and has a scholarship to the Northern Michigan Wildcats. Laframboise is a Thunder Bay product. Santerno and Laframboise are 20-year-olds, while Howarth is 19.

They will likely spend most of the series facing the ultra-talented Viper line of Brett Stapley, Steven Jandric and Jimmy Lambert.

“You gotta be aware of them for sure,” said Viper head coach/GM Mark Ferner. “They’re an older line with skill and a lot of offence goes through them.”

Vernon won five of six regular-season meetings with Trail, losing 3-1 at Cominco Arena Feb. 24. The Vipers ambushed the Smokies 7-1 the following night at Kal Tire Place. Vernon finished sixth overall in the 17-team BCHL with 69 points, while Trail was eighth with 58.

“They’ve had enough (of a rest),” said Ferner. “They’re ready and it should be a good series. Anything can happen.”

A crowd of 500 showed up Friday night as Viper assistant coach Kevin Pedersen ran a skills competiton.

The Vipers welcomed the Vernon ScoreHawks and a few minor hockey players for the two-hour event which saw Lambert take the fastest skater honour and d-man Cameron Trott post the hardest shot at 95 miles an hour. Brandt clocked in at 93 mph.

“The goalies (Darion Hanson and Ty Taylor) stood on their head in the shootout,” said Brandt.

The Merritt Centennials, who swept the West Kelowna Warriors, open the other Interior semifinal series Friday night in Penticton against the Vees.

Student and children tickets for the Vipers-Smokies series are free through sponsorship from Hytec, KISS-FM and the Morning Star. You must have a ticket to enter the building. Tickets are available at the box office from 9 a.m. until face-off at 7 p.m. Game 2 goes Saturday at 7 p.m.

Trail hosts the third and fourth games Monday and Tuesday with a Game 4, if required, Thursday in Vernon.