Morning Star Staff
The only things making it a more perfect result for Tyler Steel would have been scoring the winning goal and being named a game star.
However, the Vernon product made 31 saves, including three in overtime, to give the Merritt Centennials their first B.C. Hockey League win of the season, a 5-4 double overtime decision over the Vernon Vipers – the same team that cut Steel late in training camp – in front of 1,405 fans Tuesday at the Wesbild Centre.
“I just went into it like any other game I was playing, I got really focused and was determined to get a win in my first time playing in my hometown,” said Steel, 17, who had family and a bunch of friends in the stands as he picked up his first BCHL win. “It crossed my mind a little bit that I wanted to send the Vipers a bit of a message, but I just wanted to prove to everyone that I can play in this league and be good in this league.
“I thought I did pretty good. I want that last one back, but we ended up winning, that’s a good thing. We worked really hard, guys played their roles very well, everyone just played great.”
Defenceman Jeff Zmurchyk scored his first of the year 1:20 into double overtime for the 1-5 Centennials. He picked up a loose puck in his own end during the three-on-three, skated into Vernon territory and wired a wrist shot from the left face-off circle that cleanly beat Vipers rookie goalie Bryton Udy – the man who beat out Steel for the back-up role to Blake Voth – on the glove side.
The Vipers forced overtime when Dylan Walchuk banged in a puck on the doorstep with 33 seconds left in regulation time. Kyle Murphy started the play by driving to the net around a Centennials defender and getting a high shot away on Steel. The puck dropped to Walchuk, the game’s second star, who fought off a check to put in his second of the night and fourth of the year.
Merritt had taken a 3-2 lead just three minutes earlier on a penalty shot goal from first star Dustin Johnson. Referee Mike Boisvert awarded the shot after Vernon defenceman Steve Weinstein dove on the puck in the crease behind Udy as a Merritt shot hit Udy high on the chest, went up in the air over his head and landed behind him in the crease.
Johnson went to the backhand and beat Udy over the right shoulder for the go-ahead goal, setting the stage for Walchuk’s equalizer.
“We’re not used to having to defend one-goal leads late in the game, that’s our first time doing it,” said Merritt head coach Luke Pierce, a former Viper. “It’s something, like everything, that’s a lesson that our guys are going to learn. I liked our effort level. It wasn’t from a lack of trying, it was from a breakdown. Give Vernon a lot of credit, especially Dylan Walchuk. I thought he was one of the best players on the ice tonight.”
Walchuk opened the scoring at 3:34 of the first with a goal similar to his game-tying marker. He stood at the edge of the crease and scored on a rebound after Steel stoned David Robinson and Mark Basara in close.
The Centennials tied the game with their first of three powerplay goals on the evening less than two minutes later. Stephen Wall won a face-off to Udy’s right in Vernon territory, and Merritt leading scorer Regan Soquila, one of 11 rookies in the Centennials lineup, ripped his fourth of the year past Udy.
Merritt took the lead with the man advantage with only 16 seconds left in the opening frame as Johnson tried to pass from behind the net. The puck went off defenceman Elliot Richardson’s skate and through Udy’s legs.
Vernon scored the only goal of the second period when Weinstein deflected a Bryce Kakoske shot from the point on the powerplay that went five-hole on Steel.
Basara gave Vernon a 3-2 edge 3:53 into the third when a point shot his leg as he was screening Steel and got past the Merritt netminder.
Jeff Jones, who earlier in the week committed to Robert Morris University, an NCAA Division 1 school in Pittsburgh, tied the game for Merritt on the power play at 6:43, one-timing a cross-ice pass from Johnson past Udy.
Jones was the game’s third star.
“Tonight’s loss is obviously very disappointing,” said Vernon head coach Mark Ferner. “We had some guys with some good efforts but just not enough. It’s unacceptable. We win as a team, lose as a team. We needed to be better in a lot of different areas, our penalty kill, our own-end play, our efforts away from the puck. Right now we’re not there.”
The game marked the debut of Coldstream defenceman Max Mowat for the Vipers. He was acquired after being cut by the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL. Mowat saw a regular shift paired with Richardson.
“It’s been a good experience since I’ve been here, I’ve liked the guys ever since I’ve been here,” said Mowat, who practiced Monday with the team for the first time. “We had it going there for a bit tonight then we got outworked.”
The Vipers visit Prince George Friday night and Sunday afternoon, and travel to Quesnel to face the host Millionaires Saturday. Next home game for Vernon is Saturday, Oct. 2, against the Cowichan Valley Capitals.