Morning Star Staff
The Vernon Vipers now have company holding down the fourth and final playoff spot in the B.C. Hockey League’s Interior Division.
Matteo Esposito made 31 saves to earn his fourth shutout of the season and Jordan Kawaguchi scored twice as the Chilliwack Chiefs smothered the Vipers 5-0 Saturday night before 3,552 fans at Prospera Centre.
The Merritt Centennials clipped the Alberni Valley Bulldogs 3-2 in overtime Saturday berfore 456 fans at the Nicola Valley Arena, moving into a share of fourth spot with Vernon, with 47 points.
The Trail Smoke Eaters remain in the mix with 46 points after a thrilling 5-4 overtime win over the Salmon Arm Silverbacks Saturday in front of 1,100 fans at the Shaw Centre
Vernon has three games remaining, while Merritt and Trail each have two tilts left. The Vipers host the overall last-place Surrey Eagles, while the Smokies entertain the Silverbacks in Tuesday night play.
A Viper win and a Smoke Eater loss would eliminate the Smokies, who finish the regular season Saturday night at home versus the Vipers.
Merritt has home dates left with the first overall Penticton Vees and the fifth overall Wenatchee Wild Friday and Saturday.
“Tonight is our biggest game of the year,” said Viper head coach/GM Mark Ferner. “They get to choose whether they go home in five days or keep playing. Destiny is in our hands, but we’re not looking past tonight. It’s a game we can win; it couldn’t be a better match-up for us.”
Vernon hosts the Wild Friday night and will hand out their team trophies on the ice post-game. The Vipers will also deliver their third jerseys to fans who won online bidding.
Jordan Kawaguchi opened the scoring in Chilliwack with his 39th snipe of the season.. Kohen Olischefski picked up the primary assist, following up his blocked shot behind the Viper net and finding Kawaguchi all alone in front. Kawaguchi’s shot went over the right shoulder of Viper goaltender Andrew Shortridge.
Just 60 seconds later, former Viper Linden Hora managed his eighth of the season when he cut in on the left wall and directed a high back hand shot towards the Viper net. Hora circled behind the net and watched as the referee signaled a goal with the puck stuck in the top of the netting.
The Mainland Division-leading Chiefs held a 19-9 shot advantage after 40 minutes.
The Vipers were a much better team in the second, outshooting the Chiefs 12-6 but unable to solve a spectacular Esposito.
Kawaguchi struck again with 94 seconds left in the stranz, bagging his 40th.
Third-period goals by Connor McCarthy (6th) and Dennis Cholowski (9th) rounded out the scoring.
The Chiefs outshot the Vipers 38-31 and went 0-for-4 on the powerplay. Vernon was 0-for-3 with the man advantage.
Meanwhile, Viper lead scorer Odeen Tufto is a finalist for for the Bruce Allison Memorial Trophy as the league’s Rookie of the Year. Tufto, of Minnesota, has garnered 23 goals and 62 points.
Vimal Sukumaran of the Chilliwack Chiefs, a Montreal product, who has amassed 31 goals and 60 points, represents the Mainland Division in the rookie voting.
The Island Division winner is Kyle Betts of the Powell River Kings. The native of Fisherton, Ont. has compiled 22 goals and 41 points.
Nominated for the Vern Dye Memorial Trophy as MVP are Tyson Jost of the Vees, Kawaguchi and Sheldon Rempal of the Nanaimo Clippers.
Jost, a projected first-round pick in the June entry draft in Buffalo, has rang up 39 goals and 95 points. Rempal has pocketed 56 goals and 107 points, while Kawaguchi has posted 41 goals and 78 points.
All three players have NCAA Division 1 scholarships with Jost headed to North Dakoa, Rempal going to Clarkson and Kawaguchi committed to Providence.
Fred Harbinson of the Vees, Bliss Littler of Wenatchee and ex-Viper bench boss Mike Vandekamp of the Clippers are up for the Joe Tennant Memorial Trophy as Coach of the Year.
VERNON (3): Home: Surrey, Wenatchee; AWAY: Trail.
MERRITT (2): Home: Penticton, Wenatchee.
TRAIL (2): Home: Salmon Arm, Vernon.