Kyle Murphy couldn’t have picked a more opportune time to collect his first career B.C. Hockey League hat trick.
The Fair Haven, N.J. native recorded the winner late in the first period as the Vernon Vipers grounded the Trail Smoke Eaters 4-2 Friday night at Wesbild Centre. The win improved Vernon to 35-11-4-9, guaranteeing them a third straight Interior Conference pennant and a first-round playoff bye.
“To play that many games and to be at this point and finally get first place and that bye, it’s a good feeling,” said Murphy, who returned to junior A after playing last season with the NCAA Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
“It’s really important, especially for us being a younger team. It’s good to get that win, get that confidence and be heading in the right direction moving into playoffs.”
The Snakes end their regular season this afternoon (2 p.m.) against the visiting Quesnel Millionaires. After that, they won’t play again until Tuesday, March 8, when they host the lowest remaining seed in a best-of-seven Interior Conference semifinal.
With a handful of Vipers playing hurt and rolling with pretty much three forward lines, Ferner credited his team for a gritty performance to secure the pennant.
“It’s been a long time, a lot of hard work and sacrifices, on and off the ice. It took us 59 games to finish first,” said Ferner. “Our guys just went out and it didn’t matter who we had in the lineup, they played a sound game. We had some great efforts out of some guys.”
Despite having to kill off three straight penalties, including a game misconduct to Zach McPhee for a check from behind on Trail’s Curtis Tonello early in the first period, the Vipers managed to break out to a 2-0 lead.
At the end of McPhee’s penalty, Murphy (16th goal) broke in alone on Kiefer Smiley, snapping a shot over the Trail netminder’s shoulder at 6:37. Defenceman Brett Corkey drew the assist after he flipped the puck to centre ice where Murphy collected it behind Trail’s defence.
Viper captain Dave Robinson (31st), who took a thunderous hit from 6-foot-6, 215-pound defenceman Jake Baker early in the game, showed no ill effect as he pounced on the rebound off Darren Nowick’s shot from the top of the circle.
John Knisley earned the Vipers’ third penalty after he piled Cullen Bradshaw into the Vernon net, bowling over netminder Blake Voth. Vernon’s uncharacteristic lack of discipline finally caught up with them as Travis St. Denis (27th) broke across the blueline on the ensuing powerplay and fired a shot that appeared to redirect through a crowd in front of Blake Voth (16 saves).
Vernon pushed ahead four minutes later, scoring seconds after a Trail penalty expired. Malcolm Lyles wristed a puck on net from the point and Murphy (17th) was on Smiley’s doorstep to bury the rebound (Marcus Basara was originally credited with the goal).
Ferner said shutting down the Smoke Eaters down on those early powerplays was crucial.
“That’s where they make their hay most of the time, and I thought our guys did a real good job. To hold that team to 18 shots – that’s a pretty explosive team – it was a great team effort. We were relentless on pucks.”
Murphy (18th) completed his hat trick midway through the second period when he chipped in a loose puck past a sprawled Smiley (23 saves) on a goalmouth scramble.
Earlier in the second period, the Smokies’ Joey Baker drove Adam Thompson into the boards awkwardly, and the Vernon defender laboured to get off the ice. Thompson missed a few shifts, but returned later in the period.
With Mike Zalewski recovering from a concussion and a bunch of other lingering injuries throughout the Viper roster, Murphy said the bye will be a welcome reprieve.
“It’s real important for us to get guys back, to get guys healthy and just to rest up and get our minds right.”
Vernon’s Dylan Walchuk and the Smokies’ Sam Mellor, who were Canada West teammates at the World Junior A Challenge last November in Penticton, dropped the gloves during a second-period scrum. Walchuk earned the decision with a solid takedown, after which the former teammates shared a few words and a smile in the penalty box.
“Not really our best performance. We needed to start chipping pucks into quiet areas and get pucks deep. We had too many turnovers at both bluelines,” said Mellor, who grinned and nodded when asked if he and Walchuk will still be friends after their tussle.
Friday night was the first time in a while that Trail have sported a full lineup at Wesbild, but their big-name players were a non-factor for the most part. Scott Jacklin, Trail’s leading scorer with 73 points, completed the scoring with his 23rd goal with just over a minute to play.
The Smokies will begin the playoffs on the road against the Westside Warriors, starting Friday night at Royal LePage Place.
Said Trail head coach Jim Ingram: “We had a shift here and there where they were OK.
“They are very good hockey players, but things tighten up and you don’t have enough time and space to operate and when that happens the fanciness goes out the window. You just have to roll your sleeves up and go to work,” said Ingram, who holds a high respect for the Vipers.
“They’re not a fancy team, but boy are they ever conducive to winning because of their work ethic. They put pucks deep, they win puck battles against the walls. They look at that loose puck as theirs.”