If there’s one thing the Vernon Vipers have come to expect from a B.C. Hockey League tilt with the Merritt Centennials, it’s a grind.
Each of the last six meetings between the two clubs (dating back to last season) have been one-goal affairs, including Merritt’s 1-0 shutout win over the host Vipers in front of 1,600 fans Saturday night at Kal Tire Place.
Merritt netminder Devin Kero recorded 35 saves for first star and his second shutout of the season.
Gavin Gould, with his sixth goal, supplied all the offence Merritt would need, burying the rebound off a point shot by Lumby’s Dylan Bowen during a second-period powerplay.
“On the road, you’ve always got to find a way to grind out a win, and we did that,” said Kero, a Hancock, Mich. product. “Our dee were helpful in clearing out the front of the net, so it was just a lot of first saves and they were clearing out the rebounds.”
Kero, 19, stopped the Vipers’ Michael McNicholas on a breakaway in the opening minute, set up by Liam Coughlin. The Merritt tender denied McNicholas on another breakaway with one minute remaining in the second period.
“It freaks you out, but when it’s a point-blank shot or a breakaway right away like that, it gets you in the game,” smiled Kero, who was referred to Merritt head coach Luke Pierce by Bill Muckalt, a Cents’ grad and former NHLer. He is now assistant coach with the NCAA Michigan Tech Huskies, located near Kero’s hometown.
“He called up last minute, five days before camp, and talked to Luke and was like ‘Do you want a goalie?’ I just hopped on a plane and came up here. Didn’t really know if I’d make the team or not.”
The Vipers, tied for third in the Interior Division at 9-6-1-3, swarmed the fifth-place Cents (10-9-1) in the opening frame, outshooting them 17-5. It took Merritt five minutes to register a shot on Michael Stiliadis, who finished with 23 stops.
Despite the shot count, Vernon struggled to create offence, and when they did, they failed to convert. Brendan Persley, crashing the net, rolled a puck through the crease behind Kero and out the other side.
“We got pucks to the net, we had our chances,” said Stiliadis, making his home debut. “If those go in, it’s a different game.
“After the first, we didn’t put as many pucks to the net as we wanted. I wouldn’t say we let up, but we just didn’t bear down on our chances.”
Stiliadis, a 19-year-old Woodbridge, Ont. native, played last season with the Victoria Grizzlies, and returned to the BCHL after starting the year with the OJHL Georgetown Raiders. With Austin Smith on the 30-day injured reserve, he was brought in for added depth in the crease.
“It was pretty sudden. My team back in Ontario, we just weren’t getting the job done. When I heard I was coming back out here to a Royal Bank (Cup) team, I was pretty excited.”
Vernon’s penalty kill managed more scoring opportunities than its league-worst powerplay (11.54 per cent), which went 0-for-3 Saturday night. Persley and McNicholas, followed by McNicholas and Colton Sparrow, later on the same shift, generated the Vipers’ best scoring chances of the third period on shorthanded 2-on-1s.
“It would be nice if we could bury a few of those,” said Vipers’ assistant coach Dave Robinson. “Our powerplay is pretty dismal right now; we’re getting outworked by the penalty kill and not making the plays that need to be made.
“The first period, that’s how we want to be. We were chipping pucks in and getting to the net, but for some reason our guys like to stray away from that. Then we started to play soft – no urgency, no desperation.”
Vernon was missing forwards Demico Hannoun and Dexter Dancs, and d-man Jared Wilson, at the Team Canada West selection camp for the World Junior A Challenge, Nov. 4-10, in Yarmouth, N.S. Merritt was without blueliner Dane Birks and forwards Diego Cuglietta and Jeff Wight.
Robinson wasn’t using the missing personnel as an excuse.
“Whoever we’ve got in the lineup, we want to play the same way, and we’re not playing that way right now.”
With Pierce named head coach of Canada West for the CJHL prospects games, held in conjunction with the WJAC, his cousin, Cole Yurkowski, backed up assistant coach Joe Martin on the bench.
“This is a tough building to come into, but the guys responded well to Luke not being here,” said Yurkowski, a 25-year-old electrician who played four seasons with the KIJHL Creston Valley Thunder Cats.
“We tried to keep it simple and not get too far ahead of ourselves and it worked out all right for us.
“We tried to start from the net out and we did a good job of that, taking sticks in front and keeping our house to ourselves.”
SNAKE BITES: Yurkowski holds the KIJHL record for fastest goal. scoring eight seconds into a Sept. 19, 2008 game against the Grand Forks Border Bruins…Vernon called up Blaine Caton from the KIJHL North Okanagan Knights for Saturday’s tilt…Vernon’s Alex Jewell scored twice and was named first star as the host Salmon Arm SilverBacks grounded Merritt 5-2 Sunday at the Shaw Centre…Vernon’s Spencer Hewson collected his second straight Fortis B.C. Energy Player of the Game honour as the Nanaimo Clippers blanked the Trail Smoke Eaters 5-0 Sunday.