Morning Star Staff
Already feeling distraught and embarrassed by their futile effort, the Vernon Vipers didn’t get any further humiliation from their coaches Wednesday night in Trail.
Instead, they were simply told to shower and be on the bus home in 15 minutes.
After posting gutsy home wins over the Penticton Vees and the Salmon Arm SilverBacks, the Vipers blew a 5-1 lead and lost 6-5 to the Smoke Eaters before 700 B.C. Hockey League fans at Cominco Arena.
The last-place Smokies had lost a dozen straight and dressed just 13 skaters, but found a way to erase a 5-1 first-period deficit for their 10th win of the season.
“You could hear a pin drop on the bus,” said Vipers’ associate coach Kris Mallette. “We were taking shortcuts like crazy and our systems went out the window. Even when we built the 5-1 lead, it wasn’t like we were doing anything great. Their goalie, Dustin (Nikkel), was having a rough game and we got some lucky, fortuitus bounces.
“It was borderline comical, only in that there should have been some penalties called on them. But, had we stuck to some structure, we would have been fine. They have nobody to blame but themselves. Our penalty kill was atrocious, our powerplay was atrocious and our defence was atrocious.”
The Vipers, who have locked up third place in the Interior Division, finish the regular season Saturday night in Merritt versus the Centennials.
Vernon rested captain Ryan Renz, who is nursing a lower-body injury, and gave forward TJ Dumonceaux the green light to deal with a family matter in Kelowna. NHL-rated forward Demico Hannoun remains on injured reserve.
“Welcome to Trail’s world,” said Mallette. “Their 13 guys outworked us. The only good thing is we can’t dwell on this because we have to be ready for Merritt.”
Michael Statchuk, 2:11 into the tilt, and Dexter Dancs, 75 seconds later, put the Vipers in front. Liam Coughlin upped the lead 21 seconds later before Bryan Basilico replied for the Smokies a minute after.
Just 31 seconds later, Logan Mick made it 4-1 Vernon with Michael McNicholas completing the Viper offence with four minutes left in the period.
The Smokies got powerplay snipes from Basilico and Scott Davidson, 1:30 apart, late in the second period to make things interesting.
Zane Schartz, at 2:54, and Davidson, with four minutes remaining, on another powerplay, levelled the score. Braeden Cross counted the winner with 2:47 to play.
Dancs added three assists and will likely take Player of the Month for the Vipers. Brendan Persley pocketed two helpers.
Nikkel was pulled after Mick’s goal and replaced by Adam Todd, who made 26 saves. Austin Smith took the loss with 31 stops.
The Cents grabbed the fourth and final Interior playoff berth by bouncing the visiting SilverBacks 5-1 Wednesday night before 875 fans.
Jeff Wight, a projected NHL draft, scored twice and ex-Viper d-man Jason Bird had a single for the Cents. Salmon Arm will will finish fifth.
SNAKE BITES: Vernon’s home games in the first round will be Friday and Saturday of next week. They will open with either the Penticton Vees or West Kelowna Warriors… Viper grad Cory Kane, a senior with Ferris State Bulldogs, is the Western Collegiate Hockey Association offensive player of the week after getting 2+5 in a two-game conference sweep of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves.