With Travis Rolheiser in sick bay, the Spruce Grove Saints turned to their net detective 1A Thursday night at Wesbild Centre.
Vince Marozzi, whose numbers were slightly less than Rolheiser’s Top Goalie Award digits in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, recorded a first-star, 37-save showing as the Saints grounded the Vernon Vipers 3-1 before 2,571 fans.
Spruce Grove, ranked No. 1 in the 131-team Canadian Junior A League ahead of the Snakes, avoided elimination in the best-of-seven Doyle Cup regional series. Game 6 went Saturday night in Vernon with the Vipers up 3-2. If necessary, a seventh game would go tonight at Wesbild.
“The plan was to start Travis tonight, but he’s got the flu,” said Spruce Grove head coach Steve Hamilton, who joined his crew for a Friday-morning bowling jaunt at Lincoln Lanes. “That’s a nice storyline, when the kid comes out of the bullpen and throws some pretty good innings for you.”
The Saints got a 20-minute whiff of post-season life after getting overwhelmed by Vernon in a first-period barrage. The Vipers plastered Marozzi with 11 shots, including a handful of quality scoring chances, as they darted around the Spruce Grove zone, moving the puck at will. About the only thing Vernon didn’t do in the opening frame was score.
The Vipers finally got on the scoresheet six minutes into the second frame when Mike Collins, with his third goal in two games, curled in from corner to unleash a laser over Marozzi’s blocker while on a powerplay. It was their 18th shot.
“We had a good first period, but after that we came out a little flat, we weren’t moving our feet, we weren’t doing the simple things and it ended up costing us two or three goals,” said Viper veteran Braden Pimm, one of three Snakes to hit a post (Cole Ikkala and Jonathan Milhouse also rang iron).
“Some nights you get the bounces, some nights you don’t. You’ve got to work for your bounces and after our first goal we got a little lackadaisical.”
The Viper goal seemed to spark the Saints, who hadn’t looked much like a team facing elimination until that point. D-man Kodie Curran, a 20-year-old Calgary product in his fourth season, started the Saints’ rally by deflecting Wes McLeod’s point shot.
“Last night (Wednesday) I think we only played 20 minutes of hockey and tonight we came out and said ‘this is gonna be our finest hour and we’re gonna play 60 minutes,’ and I think we did that, stuck to our game-plan and came out with the big win,” said Curran.
The AJHL’s Most Dedicated Player, Nate Fleming, pocketed the winner on a gorgeous stretch pass from Saints’ captain Malcolm Thomlinson at 13:50. With a Vernon defender draped all over him, Fleming managed to get his shot to trickle up and over Graeme Gordon (17 saves).
Vipers’ assistant coach Jason Williamson gave the Saints full credit for not giving up after falling behind, but added the Vipers should have buried their chances. At least half a dozen Vipers fanned on open-net opportunities.
“Just a little bit of complacency crept into our game, just thinking it would come,” he said. “Sooner or later you’ve got to bear down on those chances and make sure they go in the net.”
Regarding Fleming’s winner, he added: “We turned the puck over at their blueline, we don’t get it in deep and our dee are coming up the ice and it ends up in the net. Good play by them, but it starts with a careless play by us.”
Spruce Grove made the most of its lone powerplay, as Curran fed Josh Koper a nice seam pass through the slot, which the speedy winger potted top shelf for the insurance marker.
Vernon frantically tried to get back in the game in the third period, but the Saints’ big defensive core had better luck containing the speedy Vipers than in Game 4. They were also effective in killing off 5-of-6 Viper powerplays.
“We played a pretty good team game and finally got a few bounces going our way and obviously Marozzi played solid for us tonight,” said 21-year-old Ryan Kerr, a West Vancouver product with four years WHL experience. “He’s had a good year, same with Travis Rolheiser. They’ve helped the team’s success so much this year.”
The hard-hitting Kerr played with the Portland Winterhawks last season, a team the Vipers’ Jonathan Milhouse played 17 games with before going to the Victoria Grizzlies.
“I played with Milhouse and against (David) Robinson. I tried to say ‘Hi’ to Milhouse in warmup but he didn’t seem too chatty.”
Hamilton, whose Saints lost just four times in the regular season, says they were not about to drop their fourth straight loss to the Vipers.
“We hadn’t lost two in a row all year and then lost three in a row here (in Doyle series),” he said. “It was kind of new territory, but it was nice to bounce back. Hey, as long as you keep giving yourself a chance.
“That was a greasy road win for sure, but hey, at this point, we’ll take ‘em anyway we can get ‘em.”
SNAKE BITES: Forward Scott Allen rolled a scorching 247 to lead the Saints on their bowling excursion…Spruce Grove forwards Brett Cameron and Bryce Van Brabant are wearing full facial cages due to injuries…The Royal Bank Cup host Dauphin Kings stopped the visiting La Ronge IceWolves 6-1 Thursday night before 2,100 rabid fans at Credit Union Place, taking the ANAVET Cup series 4-1. It was the Kings’ second ANAVET Cup in 27 years. Both teams are in the RBC which starts May 1…Kelowna Rockets’ head coach Ryan Huska and several NHL scouts were at Game 5.