The losing streak is over. Now all the Vernon Vipers need to figure out is what it will take to get back in the B.C. Hockey League win column.
Despite snapping a seven-game losing skid, the Snakes will certainly feel slighted by the hockey gods after Friday night’s 4-4 draw with the visiting Merritt Centennials at Wesbild Centre.
Vernon battled hard to erase an early 2-0 deficit, eventually taking a 4-3 lead in the third period, only to have Cents’ third-line grinder Sean Maktaak force OT with just over two minutes to play in regulation. Carrying the puck at Vernon’s blueline, Maktaak dangled his way in on Kirby Halcrow and somehow slid a trickling, low shot under the Vernon netminder.
“He’s an unlikely hero at that stage, but that’s been our story all year long – a different guy stepping up,” said Merritt head coach Luke Pierce, a former Viper (2003-04).
“It was a good bounce-back effort from our performance in Trail on Wednesday (4-3 loss to last-place Smoke Eaters). Vernon played really hard. You can tell they’re hungry right now.”
This season has been a big turnaround year for the Cents, who finished the 2010-11 campaign fourth to last at 22-31-1-6. They are second in the Interior Conference at 14-7-2-4, five points ahead of the 13-10-1-2 Vipers, who are tied with the Chilliwack Chiefs (14-9-0-1) for third.
“It’s just confidence. They’re comfortable with each other, they push each other,” said Pierce.
“Seventeen of them last year were first-year players. They’re confident playing in the league and know they can get results.”
The Vipers’ night was highlighted by first star Darren Nowick’s first-ever BCHL hat trick. The Long Beach, Calif. product started it off with an eruption of stuffed animals thrown on the ice by 1,600 fans for the Vipers’ annual teddy bear toss. It ended with him going headlong into the end boards after a terrific 2-on-1 shorthanded effort with Mike Zalewski early in the third period.
“That one hurt,” grinned the 20-year-old sniper.
“We came out hard and bounces were kind of going our way this time. Good to get the point, but I think we deserved a better fate.”
It was Merritt that got the bounces in the first period as Chad Brears snuck in behind d-man Ryan Renz on a Centennials breakout and took a partial breakaway feed from Regan Soquilla. He capped the play by shovelling an off-speed shot under Halcrow (33 saves) for his 10th goal of the season at 10:08.
The Cold Lake, Alta. forward added his 11th on another partial breakaway. Halcrow made the stop, but the rebound ended up in the net after it redirected off defenceman Marc Hetnik as he slid through the crease.
Nowick (18th goal) got Vernon on the board with a beauty wraparound on a missed offside call midway through the second period.
Vernon rookie Adam Tambellini (12th) squeaked a shot past Merritt tender Lino Chimienti (31 saves) shortly after a Viper powerplay had expired. Nowick and Brett Corkey drew the assists as the teams entered the third period tied.
Seconds after the Vipers had killed off a penalty, Dustin Lebrun (4th) buried a hard backhander off a rebound to restore Merritt’s lead 1:53 into the third frame.
Nowick (19th and 20th) then scored twice just 27 seconds apart to complete the trick. The first was a chip shot over Chimienti after linemate Aaron Hadley got stripped as he dangled into the slot.
In overtime, the Vipers were forced to kill off a minor to Jedd Soleway when he hammered Armstrong native Dylan Chanter into the end boards. Soleway earned two-and-a-game.
“I had a few choice words for him, but it’s all good. I was a little sore after that one,” smiled Chanter, a 16-year-old d-man who had friends and family cheering him from the stands.
A product of the Pursuit of Excellence academy in Kelowna, Chanter says the transition to junior A has been fairly seamless, thanks to his teammates.
“The guys have really helped me getting into the league and having a 20-year-old dee partner (Billy Marshall) definitely helps. I’m learning lots.”
Said Pierce of Chanter: “He’s been fabulous. He’s real mature for his age and brings a real physical presence.”
Vernon had numerous scoring chances in OT, with Corkey, Hadley and Zalewski all coming close.
“That’s been the story of our little streak here, but the bonus is the losing streak is over,” said Vernon head coach Jason Williamson. “We had the game on our stick and for whatever reason it’s not going our way.
“It’s tough because we’ve been so short bodied. I feel for the guys because they battled, they competed, they did everything they possibly could.”
Another bright spot for the Vipers was the energetic play of their water bug line of Riley Hunt and KIJHL call-ups Mike Roberts (Revelstoke Grizzles) and Phil Bamber (Kelowna Chiefs).
“They’re young kids and they got out there and created some energy. We’ll see how they go tomorrow in a smaller rink (the two teams met Saturday at Merritt’s Nicola Valley Arena),” said Williamson.
“I wasn’t too worried about the matchups. I just tried to keep them away from their top line.”
Added Hunt: “When you’re smaller and quicker, you just have to get the puck in and get the forecheck going. As the fourth line we just want to get some momentum and carry it on through the other lines and I think we did that.”
SNAKE BITES: Williamson switched up his lines Friday, putting John Knisley on a unit with newcomer Ben Gamache centred by Adam Tambellini. Hadley moved up to skate with Nowick and Zalewski.