DAUPHIN, MAN. – Only seven host teams have ever won a Royal Bank Cup National Junior A Hockey Championship. The Dauphin Kings served notice Saturday night at Credit Union Place they are a serious contender to be the eighth. The Kings erased a pair of two-goal deficits to upend the defending RBC champion Vernon Vipers 6-5 in an overtime thriller before a packed house (2,135 fans) in their tournament opener.
Kings’ defenceman Mathew Backhouse fired the winner 42 seconds into the first overtime period, beating netminder Graeme Gordon with a point shot through traffic.
The loss halted the Vipers’ nine-game win streak at the RBC, dating back to 1999 when Vernon won in Yorkton, Sask. Vernon head coach Mark Ferner credited Dauphin for not giving up, but was disappointed with his club’s inability to hold the lead.
“We got away from what we were doing,” said Ferner. “When you’ve got a two-goal lead you like to think that if you simplify your game and do simple things and pay attention to details it’s going to give you a good chance to win. We didn’t do a very good job tonight of looking after the puck.”
The Snakes silenced the home crowd in the first period with goals five minutes apart by Kellen Jones and Braden Pimm, who redirected Curtis Gedig’s powerplay point shot at 15:06.
Colton Graf answered for Dauphin a minute later to reignite the crowd, and Cody Esposito, on an early second-period powerplay, made it 2-2.
Jonathan Milhouse, who filled in admirably for Connor Jones – he was forced to watch from the stands with an injury – on a line with Kellen and Sahir Gill, says the Vipers have struggled with holding onto leads lately.
“We gotta look deep. It’s gut-check time. We need to bear down and win battles, win races and score goals,” said Milhouse. “We soak it in tonight, go to bed, forget about it. We know we’ve got a good team in La Ronge (Ice Wolves, Sunday night). We’ve just got to think about our errors and make sure we don’t do those tomorrow.”
Milhouse, who played with the host Victoria Grizzlies at last year’s RBC, earned a pair of assists on both of Kellen’s goals. The Yorba Linda, Calif. native set up Kellen in the slot with a quick pass from the corner for the first goal. Kellen struck again from the slot to make it 3-2 Vernon 7:27 into the second period, completing a sweet triangle tic-tac-toe play started by Milhouse behind the net.
“I’ve watched them play all year. They’re both really good players and it’s easy to play with them,” said Milhouse, who played with the WHL Portland Winterhawks before joining Victoria for their RBC cup run last year. “I’ve just got to find open spots and they give me the puck pretty easily. It’s a real treat playing with them.”
Mike Collins gave Vernon another two-goal lead midway through the second frame when he tapped home the rebound off Cole Ikkala’s shot on a 3-on-2 rush.
But the Kings just wouldn’t go away. Their so-called checking line of Troy Hunter, Mitch Czibere and Esposito pulled Dauphin even with a pair of goals early in the third frame. Hunter had a couple whacks at a loose puck in front of Gordon, who struggled with his rebound control all night, before finally burying one on the first shift of the period. Esposito, with his second goal, made it 4-4 when he beat Gordon (29 saves) low glove side.
“It’s a huge confidence booster for us. It’s huge team win to go down two goals twice and come back to win,” said Hunter, in his second year with the Kings. “We were going to the net a lot, a lot of guys were going to the paint and getting those tough rebound goals.”
Hunter, a 19-year-old Virden, Man. product, says playing with a couple WHL veterans makes his job a lot easier.
“They’ve (Czibere and Esposito) played at the next level and they know how to win these big games. It’s pretty simple playing with those two players.”
Added Kings’ head coach Marlon Murray: “They (Hunter’s line) were tremendous for us in the Turnbull Cup (MJHL championship) and again in the ANAVET Cup final (regional championship), shutting down the other teams’ top lines. What gets overlooked is they can be offensive too.”
Despite the win, Murray says his club probably gave the defending champs a little too much respect at the start of the game.
“You’ve got to credit Vernon. They got a club that skates real well, all four lines are very good. I felt we stood around at times and just watched what they did. I told the guys between the second and third ‘It’s OK to respect them, but let’s not bow down to them.'”
Vernon’s David Robinson put the Vipers ahead yet again when he walked out from behind Kings’ netminder Joe Caligiuri (28 saves) and cashed in his own rebound at 12:36.
Zeanan Ziemer beat Gordon five-hole to force OT after Czibere came in hard on the forecheck to turn over the puck.
After facing the Ice Wolves Sunday (5 p.m. PT), the Vipers get a rest day Monday before tangling with the Oakville Blades (noon PT) Tuesday. Games can be watched live online on a pay per view basis by visiting hockeycanada.fasthockey.com.