Joe Sacco of the Vernon Vipers heads up ice in a practice drill Wednesday at Kal Tire Place.

Joe Sacco of the Vernon Vipers heads up ice in a practice drill Wednesday at Kal Tire Place.

Vipers well aware of Vees’ stars

Tyson Jost joined past Penticton superstars like Paul Kariya, Brett Hull and Joe Murphy in winning the Vern Dye Memorial Trophy as BCHL MVP.

Tyson Jost joined past Penticton superstars like Paul Kariya, Brett Hull and Joe Murphy in winning the Vern Dye Memorial Trophy as  MVP in the B.C. Hockey League.

The ultra-talented 17-year-old forward compiled 42 goals and 104 points in his second year with the Vees.

Dante Fabbro of the Vees is now in Duncan Keith’s class after being named the league’s Top Defenceman with 14 goals and 67 points

Toss in the BCHL’s scoring king and ex-Penn State Nitany Lion Scott Conway (56 goals and 116 points with 15 game-winners) and former Ohio State Buckeye Nic Jones, and the Vees are one of the best teams in league history. They won 50 games, only the fifth team to do so, and rang up 101 points, 50 more than the Vernon Vipers.

Given all these props and stats, the Vees are heavy favourites to dispatch the 24-win Vipers in Round 1 of the playoffs. The best-of-seven Interior Division semifinal series opens tonight at the South Okanagan Events Centre.

A survey on the Vees’ website asks fans who will win the series. Just seven per cent of the voters chose the Vipers.

Vernon is fine with being underdogs. They appeared loose while being pushed to the max in practice Wednesday afternoon at Kal Tire Place.

“They’re probably one of the best teams I’ve ever seen play,” said Viper forward Joe Sacco, who just signed a letter of intent with the University of New Hampshire Wildcats. “They’ve got a lot of talent and I don’t think that’s a secret. We can respect them, but at the end of the day, they’re our opponents.”

Liam Finlay, who started last year in Penticton before being traded to the Vipers Den, says putting the focus solely on what the Vipers do best is crucial for success.

“They’re obviously a real good team and we just have to go in there with the mentality that we’re confident and we know we can beat them. All the guys returning are gonna know what it’s like and we’re seeking revenge for sure.”

Penticton won Game 7 on a fluky goal last year at home, while the Vipers stunned the Vees in the seventh game, also on the road, two years ago on an overtime snipe by Michael McNicholas.

Viper fiery captain Colton McCarthy was pretty much classified a high-risk criminal by Vees’ fans last year as he taunted goalie Hunter Miska and anyone else who came near him.

“Pen’s definitely a good team so we have to get in their head and play hard against them,” said McCarthy, a Salmon Arm product. “I know they don‘t like getting hit so we have to stay on them, keep hitting and frustrating them.”

McCarthy, a former Prince Albert Raider, says making the post-season dance feels sweet.

“It’s excellent getting the last win in Trail and all the guys are a little nervous, but excited to be in the playoffs.”

The Vees are the No. 2 ranked team in the country behind the defending Royal Bank Cup champion Portage Terriers, who bumped the Vees with a late 19-game winning streak.

Jost, who like Fabbro, is projected as a first-round pick in the June NHL entry draft in Buffalo, said being nominated for MVP was a big honour.

“It’s special but Scott (Conway) could have easily been nominated for the award and (Sheldon, of Nanaimo) Rempal and Jordan Kawaguchi (of Chilliwack Chiefs) are both amazing players and it could have gone either way, so it’s humbling to be recognized like this.”

Jones, who just committed to the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks for 2017-18, is the fifth player on the Vees’ roster to sign with UND. Penticton has 15 players with NCAA scholarships.

Prior to joining Ohio State two years ago, Jones had a decorated junior career with the Sherwood Park Crusaders in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, producing 52 goals and 96 points in 100 games.

Saaco, 19, is one of nine Vipers now carrying a U.S. scholarship although power forward Christian Cakebread has de-committed to UND and may return here.

“There were two or three schools that showed interest but ultimately, UNH showed the most and I felt it was the perfect fit for me,” said Sacco, of Reading, Mass. “My dad (ex-NHLer Joe, now a coach with the Boston Bruins) went to BU (Boston University Terriers) so I have ties with Hockey East and obviously it’s closer to home, about an hour. I’ll have to earn my role. They can’t promise me anything; playing time is up to me.”

Sacco’s father was selected 71st overall by the Maple Leafs in the 1987 draft lottery and went on to play 738 games with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, New York Islanders, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers. Sacco skated with Viper head coach Mark Ferner in the Ducks’ inaugural season.

“He’s been a huge factor in my life,” said Joe Jr. “He’s helped guide me through different situations. He’s never forced me one way or another, but he’s always been there to show me the right path to take.

“He retired when I was in first grade so I don’t remember all of it. I remember the last year a little bit. Paul Kariya started his career when my dad was one of the older guys with the Ducks. They were pretty close. I also got to meet guys like (Teemu) Selanne.”

A huge Red Sox fan who played shortstop and batted ninth “because I couldn’t hit” in youth baseball, Sacco will take away fond memories of his stay in Vernon.

“The whole year was a great experience. It’s been a hard year standings wise. We didn’t get the results we wanted to, but we’re set around here. Penticton’s gonna be a tough battle but I don’t think it’s anything we can’t handle.”

It will be noisy tonight as the Vees are giving out 100 cow bells and Paint The Town Blue T-shirts to the first 1,000 fans through the turnstiles.

Anthony Brodeur, the son of NHL legend Martin, and Zachary Driscoll combined for the lowest goals-against average in the league at 1.95 and teamed up to capture the Wally Forslund Trphy.

“They are a pretty good team,” said Driscoll, of the Vipers. “We can’t take them lightly, that’s for sure. Anything can happen now that it’s playoffs.”

Added Brodeur: “We’ve had a couple of heated games this season with them. We’ve had some good games. We’re just looking forward to the task at hand.”

Game 2 goes Sunday in Penticton with Games 3 and 4 in Vernon Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

The five teams with 50-plus win seasons”

1…Penticton 2011-12 (54);

2…Vernon Vipers 1998-99 (52);

3…New Westminster Royals 1989-90 (52);

4…Vernon Vipers 2009-10 (51);

5…Penticton 2015-16 (50.