The Vernon Vipers were certainly ready for battle, but found little in the way of opposition from the Penticton Vees in Game 1 of the B.C. Hockey League Interior Conference final.
After such an evenly contested regular-season series (they tied 3-3), the Snakes, ranked No. 2 in Canada, were probably somewhat surprised as they cruised to a 6-0 win over the No. 3 Vees before 2,100 fans Friday night at Wesbild Centre.
Game 2 went Saturday night at Wesbild, after which the series heads to the South Okanagan Events Centre in Penticton for Games 3 and 4, Tuesday and Wednesday night respectively.
First star Dan Nycholat provided all the offence Vernon would need just two minutes into the game. Taking a feed from Curtis Gedig while on the powerplay, the Viper blueliner fired a point shot through traffic that beat netminder Sean Bonar clean, glove side.
Jonathan Milhouse, who ended the regular season on a Sahara desert-like drought – he hadn’t scored in 15 games, dating back to Jan. 16 – continued to pump up his post-season production, electrifying the crowd with his third goal with 2.5 seconds left in the first frame. Gathering a well-placed lob pass by Braden Pimm, the speedy Yorba Linda, Calif. native raced in on Bonar (41 saves), beating the Penticton keeper high glove side.
“I didn’t even know how much time there was, I just put my head down and took off,” said Milhouse, second star. “I scored on him just like that before, so that was my first thought. I just wanted to get the shot off.”
Milhouse credits head coach Mark Ferner’s decision to put him back at his natural centre position for helping elevate his game. He started the game between Bryce Kakoske and Dylan Walchuk.
“We’re (linemates) starting to pick it up and play better. I’ve played centre all my life so it’s good to get back there. I get to move around a little bit more,” said the smooth skating 21-year-old.
“Playoffs is my thing. I love getting up for the big games and helping the team win.”
Milhouse apparently also has his own personal playoff cheering section at every home game, as a boisterous group of Aussies from Silver Star constantly cheer his name whenever he steps on the ice.
“I have no idea (why they chose me),” he grinned. “I’ve been told they like me just because of my name, but I have no idea.”
Viper netminder Graeme Gordon (third star) was steady when called upon, which wasn’t often as Penticton’s big guns were held silent all night. The Vees, who hadn’t been shut out all year, got slower as the game wore on, and their offensive production dwindled with each period for a total of just 19 shots.
The North Vancouver product hasn’t allowed a goal in nearly 10 periods of playoff hockey, dating back to Game 2 of the Interior semis against the Quesnel Millionaires (rookie tender Blake Voth played Games 3 and 4).
“You’ve gotta give Vernon a lot of credit, they came ready to play,” said Vees’ head coach Fred Harbinson. “They created a lot of the issues that we had, but at the same time, when your best players don’t show up, that’s the result. We had some of our best guys on the ice for four or five goals against.
“We haven’t had a game like that all year, but at the same time Vernon saw blood in the water and they went for it.” About the only thing Penticton did win was a third-period mugging of Vernon’s Braden Pimm by the Vees’ Luke Curadi, who had five inches and 80 pounds on his opponent.
The Vipers were like barnacles on the forecheck – impossible to pry off the boards, or the puck, which forced the Vees to collapse down low. Vernon’s d-men took full advantage, testing Bonar with quality blasts from the blueline.
Goals by Nycholat, on an sensational 75-foot cross-ice pass from Milhouse, and Garrett Noonan, dangling like he was Kyle Bigos, continued the Viper assault in the second period.
Noonan, who has already matched his regular-season goal total (2), gave a sheepish grin when asked about his newfound offensive prowess.
“I’m usually just a stay-at-home guy, but our points have been getting involved lately and we’re starting to see some open ice and every one of us has been getting on the board,” said the Norfolk, Mass product. “Our forwards tired them out and it opened things up top.”
Kellen Jones, tapping home a gimme from the slot, and Robbie Short, with a beauty shorthanded breakaway, capped the Vernon offence in the third period.
“It might have been one of our worst games of the year which is tough this time of year,” said the Vees’ Derik Johnson. “We’ve got to find a way, us veterans, to get the young guys to bounce back and re-energize. We’ve got to let them know that one game doesn’t decide this series.”
Knowing this could be a long series yet, Ferner wasn’t about to book his ticket to the Fred Page Cup final.
“It’s just one game. We certainly had a good effort, but we haven’t seen the best of Penticton yet,” he said.