Vernon Vipers’ call-up Cole Sanford (facing) tracks the play while being marked by Merritt Centennials’ defenceman Dylan Chanter

Vernon Vipers’ call-up Cole Sanford (facing) tracks the play while being marked by Merritt Centennials’ defenceman Dylan Chanter

Shutout loss to Cents leaves Vipers on playoff bubble

Vernon product Tyler Steel records shutout as Merritt Centennials ice Vernon Vipers 2-0.

Vernon Vipers’ head coach/GM Jason Williamson had concerns about playing with a reduced 21-man roster, and now he is finding out why.

Just 1-6-1-2 in their last 10 B.C. Hockey League games and the Vernon Vipers’ Band-Aid lineup is starting to come unglued. They are fourth in the Interior Conference at 13-11-1-2, and are just one point away from falling out of the playoff picture after Saturday night’s 2-0 shutout loss to the second-place Merritt Centennials (15-7-2-4).

Joining captain Pat McGillis (ankle) and blueline quarterback Luke Juha (concussion) and energy forward Colton Sparrow (concussion) in the stands at Nicola Valley Arena were Adam Tambellini (day-to-day) and Peter McMullen (day-to-day).

Williamson was forced to roll with an all-rookie third line of Jedd Soleway, Riley Hunt and KIJHL call-up Cole Sanford (Revelstoke Grizzlies), a Vernon native. Other affiliate call-ups included Phil Bamber (Kelowna Chiefs) and Vernon’s Mike Roberts (Grizzlies)

“Not to take anything away from those guys, but it’s a big jump for them. A lot of them have done a great job coming in and filling voids, but some aren’t as comfortable or as game-ready. It’s tough on a team that’s running five or six bodies short every night,” said Williamson.

“You lose a guy like Adam Tambellini Saturday night and you can’t get that back. You can play some Junior B players and they get that chance, that puck on their stick, Tamby’s probably going to score. The Junior B guy may score, he may not.”

The Cents’ Sean Maktaak, scoring his fifth of goal of the season, and second in as many games, opened the scoring at 13:48 of the first period.

Merritt first-liner Evan Stack (10th goal) added an empty netter in the final minute.

“We had a slow start just getting used to the rink. After the first period, I think we were pretty dominant for the rest of the game. We had our chances late – Renzy (defenceman Ryan Renz) hit a crossbar and (Mike) Zalewski had a chance right from the slot. Both goaltenders were good.”

Tyler Steel, a Vernon product, earned the shutout and first star with a 29-save showing in front of 700 fans. The 18-year-old splits net detective duties with 1991-born Lino Chimienti, and has a 7-5-1 record and a respectable 2.98 goals against average and .903 save percentage.

Kirby Halcrow (10-12-1, 2.86 GAA, .910 SV) collected second star for his 33-save effort.

One area where the Vipers are lacking offensively is from the back end – they have had just four goals from defencemen all season. Whether they’re not shooting enough, or aren’t getting serviced by the Viper forwards wasn’t Williamson’s concern.

“The guy we were counting on to do the scoring has played 10 games,” said Williamson, referring to Juha. “You build a dee corps with certain guys that are going to do the scoring. (Brett) Corkey has had his chances, but he’s not scoring, and the other guys are pretty much first-year players.

“You’re never going to replace a guy like Luke Juha with whoever else. Some players have those capabilities and some don’t.”

Despite the team’s recent slump, Williamson remains optimistic things will turn around. He also hinted he isn’t quite done on the trade front, but wouldn’t go into detail.

“I know some people around town are probably worried. They’re one-goal games with a short lineup – just relax, it’ll be fine,” he said.

“I think we’re right there. We started out on fire and then we got injuries. If we can ever get back to that team, I think we’ll be fine.”

Vernon hosts the last-place Trail Smoke Eaters (5-18-1-3) Thursday night at Wesbild Centre before heading to Royal LePage Place Friday to battle Rylan Ferster’s Westside Warriors (9-14-0-4).

SNAKE BITES: Vernon’s Trevor Fitzgerald netted the overtime winner and assisted on the opening goal as the host Nanaimo Clippers shaded the Langley Rivermen 2-1 Sunday at Frank Crane Arena…The Penticton Vees are the top BCHL entry in the weekly CJHL poll at No. 3. The Coastal Conference-leading Cowichan Valley Capitals are No. 18, while the Centennials get an honourable mention. The Woodstock Slammers of the Manitoba league are No. 1, followed by Alberta’s Spruce Grove Saints.