A 63 second lapse by the Vernon Vipers was all it took for the Penticton Vees to come away with a pair of B.C. Hockey League points Friday night at Kal Tire Place.
The Vees converted a pair of quick goals late in the second period by newcomers Nic Pierog and Erik Benoit, both acquired ahead of Friday’s league trade deadline, to earn a 2-1 comeback win in front of 1,900 fans.
The Vees extended their lead atop the Interior Division at 26-9-2-3, eight points ahead of Vernon (21-12-3-4), who slipped into third place.
The West Kelowna Warriors (23-12-2-2) leapfrogged Vernon with a 7-2 win over the Coquitlam Express Friday. The red-hot Warriors are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games, while the Snakes are 5-5.
The Express (18-17-1-3) visited the Viper den Saturday night.
Pierog (26th goal), a centreman acquired from the Surrey Eagles, lost an offensive draw, but pursued the puck, created a turnover and snuck a shot past second star Danny Todosychuk (33 saves) for the 1-1 goal.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder looks to be a nice complement to the Vees’ smaller, highly skilled forward corps.
“I add a bit more size down the middle and I try to play a power forward-type role,” said Pierog, who likes Penticton’s offensive mind-set.
“If there’s an opportunity anywhere, we’re going to try and grab it and generate offence.”
Last week, Pierog and new Vernon addition Brett Mulcahy were playing together on the Eagles. Pierog said it was surreal to go up against his former teammate.
“We were good buddies in Surrey; we won a championship together. It was great playing against him and I’ll probably talk to him after, but it was definitely good to get the win against him.”
Benoit (first star), picked up as WHL free agent, pocketed his first-ever BCHL goal with 4:28 to go in period two when his wraparound attempt caromed off Vernon d-man Kenny Citron and past Todosychuk.
“We got stronger as that period went on, but they had a push-back in the third,” said Vees’ head coach Fred Harbinson, who credited his defence for withstanding some frantic pressure by Vernon late in the game.
“For us, we grab the two points, get on the bus and go home.”
Aside from the hiccup in the second period, Vernon captain Ryan Renz said it was anybody’s game.
“Any time you limit Penticton to two goals, there’s no reason we can’t win that game. We’ve got the firepower.
“It was our second period that let us down. You get behind a good team like that and it’s tough to come back. We took it to them in the third period and gave it a good run, but just ended up falling short.”
Vernon’s crash-and-bang defence did an admirable job of shutting down Penticton’s speedy forwards in the first period, but they were harder to bottle up in the middle frame.
“We need to contain them and when we get them in the corner that’s when we need to jump on them,” said Renz. “We’re stronger and we’re bigger so we’ve got to take away space and get them down low.
“We did a pretty good job of that for the most part, but if you give them too much ice, that’s what the little guys are good at and we gave them a few too many chances.”
Vernon opened the scoring late in the first frame when Mason Blacklock (17th) fired on an open net from the right faceoff dot. Vernon had Penticton’s defence scrambling, and netminder Hunter Miska (30 saves) was caught out of position. Liam Coughlin and Brendan Persley drew assists.
The Vipers whiffed on a couple of prime scoring chances that could have turned the game in their favour.
Demico Hannoun ran onto a puck chipped into the neutral zone by Josh Bryan in the opening minute of the second period, but he couldn’t settle the puck on a partial breakaway. Later in that frame, Michael Statchuk missed a wide open net after linemate Matty Saharchuk had dangled his way through traffic and onto Miska’s doorstep.
In the final minute of regulation, with Todosychuk pulled for the extra attacker, forward Michael McNicholas just missed the top corner with a wrister from the slot.
“We had some glorious opportunities,” said Vernon head coach Jason Williamson. “You see Michael McNicholas with the puck in the slot with under a minute to go, you think ‘here we go’ but that’s the game. It’s bounces, it’s hockey. They got one more break than we did.”
Meanwhile, the North Okanagan Knights suffered their sixth straight KIJHL loss as they fell 5-1 to the Summerland Steam Friday night at Nor-Val Sports Centre.
Vernon’s Blaine Caton handled the offence for the 16-19-0-1 Knights, who host the 22-14-0-1 Osoyoos Coyotes in a 3 p.m. matinee today. The Steam are 21-14-1-3.