DAUPHIN, MAN. – It was role reversal time for the Vernon Vipers Wednesday afternoon at Credit Union Place. After playing hot potato with third-period leads so far in the Royal Bank Cup, the Vipers went into the final frame of their last round-robin game against the Brockville Braves of Ontario down 2-0.
Whether it was the comfort of knowing they had already locked up a semifinals berth, or because they simply don’t like to lose, the Vipers cranked up their offence to record four unanswered goals, earning a 4-2 win before 1,160 fans.
The win secures second place for Vernon in the round-robin. They will play in the Saturday afternoon semi (noon PT) against the winner of the Braves-La Ronge Ice Wolves game, which goes Thursday night. As round-robin winners, the host Dauphin Kings opted for the Saturday night semi (5 p.m. PT).
The Vipers’ Sahir Gill jumpstarted the comeback, swatting home the rebound from Adam Thompson’s point shot off the end boards. The all-rookie line of Pat McGillis, Trevor Fitzgerald and Dylan Walchuk equalized for Vernon less than two minutes later as McGillis tucked a wraparound five-hole on netminder Justin Gilbert. Fitzgerald, who hadn’t played since the Vipers’ final regular-season game on Feb. 21, won a puck battle in the corner to keep the play alive.
“My game-plan going into today wasn’t anything to do with getting on the scoresheet. It was just every chance I got, dump the puck in deep and see if we could get a forecheck going. It was more to keep it out of our end,” said the 17-year-old Vernon product.
McGillis, who has been playing in place of the injured Connor Jones (Jones is expected to play Saturday), has enjoyed the RBC thrill ride.
“I sat out all playoffs for the BCHL so it was definitely nice to come in here and play some games. I like playing in this rink, a new environment, not a lot of pressure. It’s nice just being here with your teammates… who you’re here for, what you’re here for and you’re focused on one thing, and that’s to win a national championship.”
With a semis berth locked up, Vipers’ head coach Mark Ferner wanted to get his taxi squad in the game, dressing Darin Robak and Fitzgerald in place of veterans Bryce Kakoske and Dan Nycholat. Rookie netminder Blake Voth started in place of Graeme Gordon.
Ferner praised the rookies for adding fresh energy to the lineup.
“These kids have been here all year and they’ve worked just as hard as anybody else. We knew adding a few new guys was going to add some enthusiasm and it worked out for us. They were a big part of our success tonight,” said Ferner.
“I thought it was our best effort regardless of what the score was. Finishing off the round-robin with our best effort of the tournament has to make our team feel good.”
Ferner also noted the Vipers played 26 playoff games in 42 days leading up to the RBC, which might explain some of the uncharacteristic mental lapses they have experienced this week.
“Maybe we were thinking way too much,” said Ferner. “I told the guys between periods ‘Let’s just go react and not think too much about it, and if you’re going to be the first guy in let’s just take time and space away, and let’s just get after these guys.'”
Vernon had a great opportunity to take control early with a lengthy 5-on-3 in the opening minutes, but managed just a one shot on Gilbert, who posted a 40-save Game MVP performance.
Voth’s first test in more than six weeks of watching from the bench happened to be a clear-cut breakaway, which Braves’ captain Shayne Thompson ripped past the Herbert, Sask. product at 3:44 of the first period.
Other than earning an early lead, Thompson wasn’t overly impressed with his club’s performance.
“We didn’t actually get off to that good of a start. We were lucky to score a goal, but after that we shut down for the first. In the second we were able to play our game, but we let go in the third.”
Voth (25 saves) didn’t get much help on Brockville’s second goal, as he denied Sebastien Gingras on his doorstep, but couldn’t recover in time to stop Shayne Stockton on the rebound.
As the game wore on in the third period, the Vipers appeared to regain confidence by the minute. David Robinson, taking a feed from Robbie Short, wheeled up the left wing and blew a shot past Gilbert from 40 feet out. Cole Ikkala sealed the win with an empty-netter.
Braves’ head coach Todd Gill, a Brockville native with more than 1,000 games of NHL experience (mainly with the Toronto Maple Leafs), says Gilbert probably should have stopped the second and third goals, but credited his keeper for keeping them alive in the early going.
“We let them dictate the play and that’s not the way to win hockey games,” said Gill. “They forced us a lot more than any other team, and guys were kinda used to the teams being a little more static and sitting back. We’re used to that in our own league and why that affected us so much tonight… we just held onto the puck too long.
“We had an opportunity to win a game in the third and we let it slip away, which isn’t our style, which disappoints me more than the loss. It’s how we lost that bugs me more than the loss itself.”