The Vernon Vipers are B.C. Hockey League champions… again.
Sahir Gill collected the winner on an odd-man rush with linemates Connor and Kellen Jones as the Vipers iced the Powell River Kings 3-1 to successfully defend their Fred Page Cup title in a Game 7 thriller Monday night at Wesbild Centre.
Jonathan Milhouse, taking an unselfish feed from Connor, fired an empty-netter in the final minute to seal the win, earning an eruption of cheers from a packed house (3,008 fans).
The last time a cup final went to seven games was in 2001 when the Victoria Salsa outlasted the Merritt Centennials. Incidentally, that was the last year the Vipers failed to make the playoffs.
Vipers’ head coach Mark Ferner praised his squad for bouncing back after forgettable 5-2 loss in Game 6 on the Sunshine Coast.
“After Game 6 I was mad. Mad that we didn’t come out with the effort that we needed. The madness turned into disappointment because we had an opportunity.
“But then the next day on the bus, now I’m jealous of these guys because they get to play in a Game 7. Not too many hockey players can say that they get to play in a Game 7 at home for a league championship.
“I’m extremely proud of our guys for refocussing. We’ve had a target on our back all year long in this league. Our guys persevered and that’s a sign of great character.”
Both netminders – the Kings’ Josh Watson and Vipers’ Graeme Gordon – were stellar in keeping the first period scoreless. Watson (27 saves) stood tall as Viper rookie Dylan Walchuk crashed the net and tried to tuck the puck far side on the Powell River keeper. Gordon (first star, 26 saves) flashed a great kick save to stop Brenden Forbes, and added a few more clutch saves on Chad Niddery to keep Vernon alive.
“I just tried to keep the guys in it for as long as I can. It could have been the last game of my career if I didn’t play my best game. Obviously that’s going to motivate me and I just put it all out there.”
Powell River silenced the Wesbild crowd early in the second period as Niddery, a thorn in the Vipers’ side all series, deflected defenceman Reid Campbell’s point shot at 3:26.
Vernon responded five minutes later as Milhouse fired a harmless looking shot from 40 feet out that deflected off d-man Justin Dasilva’s skate, fooling Watson as 8:06.
As the game wore on, the Kings looked more and more like a team that was playing not to lose. The Vipers stayed on the offensive, while holding the Kings to just one shot in the first half of the third period.
Gill’s goal came at 15:00 into the final period, but referee Trevor Hanson had to consult with linesmen Matt Thurston and Nathan Vanoosten to see if Gill had kicked the puck in (Connor’s centring pass deflected in off the Terrace product’s skate).
Gordon saved his best for last as he absolutely robbed Niddery by diving across his crease to deny the Powell River forward an empty net late in the game.
The Kings, who faced elimination four other times in the playoffs, showed tremendous character in this series. The respect between the two sides shone through during the handshakes, as players swapped hacks and hits for hugs and congratulations.
Said Kings’ head coach Kent Lewis: “Sometimes sports is cruel. We probably had, in the third, two of the best chances we just didn’t bury.
“I’m proud of the group. We returned eight guys from last year and we got here for a lot of reasons and we were a whisker away from going a lot farther, but Vernon’s a good hockey club and we knew that so we’ll go out with our heads held up.”
Check out the sports section of Wednesday’s Morning Star for a full recap of this hard-fought series finale.