First goal of the Vernon Vipers’ season, first star on back-to-back nights and a share of first place in the B.C. Hockey League scoring race – it all adds up to Player of the Week honours for Darren Nowick.
The Long Beach, Calif. native, who is tied with a nest of players at four points after opening weekend, buried the overtime winner as the Vipers brushed back the host Salmon Arm SilverBacks 5-4 Saturday night at the Sunwave Centre.
Second-year Viper forward Marcus Basara tried a wraparound and missed, but the rebound went right to Nowick.
“Pucks are just bouncing the right way for him and he knows his game and he’s playing with confidence,” said Vipers’ head coach Jason Williamson.
Nowick centres a line with skilled wingers Mike Zalewski and John Knisley, which also happens to be Vernon’s first powerplay unit, and three of their top-four penalty killers.
“It’s the way they compete. He’s going to play a lot of minutes as our first-line centre. He’ll be the go-to guy,” said Williamson.
The threesome played as a line for the last half of the season last year.
And that built-in chemistry is making a big difference early.
“It helps a ton, just being close with one another and knowing how each other plays. We talk a lot out there,” said Zalewski, adding Nowick adds more to the team than just his scoring touch.
“Even if he’s not scoring he brings a lot of energy to the team and he’s great in his own end. It was great to see him get that start and player of the week.”
The Vipers jumped in front early when rookie Adam Tambellini converted the rebound off a Patrick McGillis shot on a powerplay, but it was the SilverBacks who controlled the first-period action.
Alex Gillies, a 16-year-old Vernon product, wheeled up the wall on a 2-on-1 and ripped a shot shortside on Kirby Halcrow (23 saves) for his first-ever BCHL goal in front of 1,178 fans at 3:46.
Singles by defencemen Klay Kachur and Sean Flanagan, both on point shots through traffic, gave the SilverBacks a 3-1 lead heading into the first intermission.
“We were pretty successful the night before (5-1 win over Salmon Arm Friday night at Wesbild Centre) and we got an early goal and thought it was going to be easy,” said Williamson.
“Two goals through screens on bad scrambles. We got caught running around in our dee zone and we had to step it up to come back and we did.”
Vernon continued to outshoot Salmon Arm in the second frame (and 46-27 overall), but some solid work by second star netminder Kurt Williams (42 saves) helped preserve the Gorillas’ lead until late in the period.
Rookie Jedd Soleway of Vernon pulled the Vipers within a goal when he crossed the blueline and unleashed a low rocket to the corner at 14:31, for his first BCHL snipe.
“He (Williams) just couldn’t get over to stop it. That’s something we’ve talked to Jedd about. He can rip it,” said Williamson.
Just 26 seconds later and the Vipers were even as Zalewski, who also had a four-point weekend, pick-pocketed a Salmon Arm defender in the slot, then turned and fired before Williams could get set.
Zalewski put Vernon in front with less than three minutes to play in the second when he rifled a powerplay one-timer cleverly set up by defenceman Marc Hetnik.
Third star Devin Muller, who earned the assist on Gillies’ goal, forced overtime when he cashed in the rebound from a Bryce Gervais shot midway through the third period.
SilverBacks’ coach Colin O’Hara inserted Adam Clark in net to finish the second period. Williams was back in the third.
“The second period was a pretty even affair but we went to sleep as a whole, burned a timeout and changed our goaltending,” said O’Hara. “We were able to get a five-on-three but didn’t score.”
Salmon Arm has lost 18-year-old defenceman Joel Kipp for up to three months. He was pushed into the boards by Vernon’s Alex Hagen Friday night (5-1 Vernon win) and taken to hospital with concussion concerns but turned out to have a ruptured spleen which was removed. Hagen was assessed a boarding minor penalty on the play.
“Joel was hit from behind, we feel,” said O’Hara. “And now he’s lost for 10 to 12 weeks.”
The Vipers had a clear edge in the special-teams battle for the weekend, going 4-10 on the power play while Salmon Arm was 0-11. O’Hara was also quick to credit Vernon’s goalie.
“Kirby Halcrow stood on his head – on Saturday night with the game tied 4-4, he came up with two saves back to back while he was doing snow angels in the crease to push the game to overtime.”
Vernon and the Westside Warriors are the only two Interior Conference teams to go 2-0 over the weekend. The two teams meet Friday night at Royal LePage Place.
The Vipers start a three-game homestand Saturday night against the Prince George Spruce Kings. Westside visits Wesbild Centre next Wednesday night.
The Cowichan Valley Capitals and Powell River Kings are the only undefeated teams on the coast.
Vernon’s Conor Barrie is the back-up goalie with the Surrey Eagles.