The Penticton Vees are running away with the Interior Conference, and the Merritt Centennials appear to be breaking away from the playoff pack.
That leaves the third-place Prince George Spruce Kings and No. 4 Chilliwack Chiefs as the teams the Vernon Vipers will be targeting for a berth in the B.C. Hockey League postseason.
Vipers’ head coach/GM Jason Williamson was working the phones Tuesday prior to the 8 p.m. trade deadline for any last-minute deals to improve his club. As of the Morning Star’s Tuesday afternoon press time, no moves had been made.
The Vipers, fifth in the Interior at 17-16-1-2, are losers of three straight, including an entertaining 3-1 loss to the Cents (20-10-2-5) Saturday night at Wesbild Centre.
Williamson would gladly settle for a healthy lineup over a blockbuster deal. He completed one transaction Saturday, sending forward Peter McMullen to the Langley Rivermen in exchange for future considerations. The trade was made to make room for returning captain Patrick McGillis, who has been out with an ankle sprain since Oct. 7.
“We had to move a forward to move a forward in, and it’s a numbers game,” said Williamson. “He’s (McMullen) going to school (NCAA Boston College Eagles) next year, and some of the other guys are going to be returning for years to come.”
McGillis, 20, earned an assist on Vernon’s lone goal Saturday, connecting on a beauty three-way passing play with Dylan Walchuk, converted in front of the net by Colton Sparrow during a late powerplay in the second period.
“I’m happy to be back out there trying to help the guys put some wins back in the column, but tonight was frustrating with the way the game turned out,” said McGillis, who, charging in from the wing, rang the crossbar with a snap shot in the second period.
“Definitely not in mid-season form like the rest of the guys, but after I got the first period out of the way, it was coming back a little bit better. There’s still a ways to go before I’m where I want to be.”
Cents’ forward Brendan Lamont clicked on a give-and-go with Regan Soquila for the winner earlier in the second period.
Soquila collected a smart stretch pass from Cents’ defenceman Billy Marshall to put the game away with an empty-netter before 1,400 fans in the final minute.
“We out-chanced them, we out-hit them and outshot them, but it was pretty evenly played. We went post-and-out and their’s went post-and-in,” said Williamson, referring to Lamont’s winner.
Armstrong’s Dylan Chanter, normally a defenceman, played up front for the Cents and was rewarded with the opening goal, his second of the season, as he went to the net and redirected a pass from Brandon Bruce in the first period.
“I went to the net and Bruce was in the corner and he said he saw someone up there and he threw it there and I took a swipe and it just ended up in the back of the net,” smiled the 6-foot-3 Chanter.
“You need a bit more endurance up there (at forward), and it was fun, but I’m looking to getting back on defence for sure.”
It has been six years since Merritt had a winning season (2005-06), and Chanter, 16, wasn’t sure if it would be more of the same when he arrived this season.
“Some people were saying we were going to be last, some thought we would do alright, but I don’t think anyone expected us to be in the position we’re in right now,” he said.
Added Cents’ head coach Luke Pierce: “It’s great for our organization and it’s great for the people of Merritt who stood by us when things weren’t good.
“All the credit has to go to these kids. It’s just so nice to see the development in guys that, last year, were three- or four-goal guys that are now big contributors to our lineup.”
Even with the Vees’ dominance this year, Pierce, a former Viper, says the Centennials aren’t about to roll over.
“Penticton’s having an outstanding year, but some people might be getting the impression that there’s no point in trying to challenge this year, that they’re just going to win anyway. If you concede defeat, what’s the point?”
Cents’ keeper Lino Chimienti, with 35 stops, and Vipers’ netminder Kirby Halcrow, with 32 saves, recorded second and third star respectively.
“There’s not a lot of difference. It was a great hockey game with a lot of momentum swings both ways,” said Pierce. “For Vernon right now, there a break or two from winning a lot of these games. We just happened to capitalize when we had our opportunities.”
The Vipers battle Merritt Friday night at Nicola Valley Arena before starting a three-game home stand against the Coquitlam Express (20-12-2-2) Saturday at Wesbild. They host Prince George (19-13-2-3) in a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday.
SNAKE BITES: The Vees (33-3-0-2) have won 21 straight games, including a 6-1 over the Salmon Arm SilverBacks Saturday night at the Shaw Centre. Penticton leapfrogged the 33-3 Woodstock Slammers of the Maritime League for first place in the weekly CJHL national poll… After shading Vernon 4-3 Friday night, the travel-weary Victoria Grizzlies (18-21) fell 3-2 to the last-place Trail Smoke Eaters (6-24-1-4) Saturday, and bowed 10-2 to the Westside Warriors (12-19-1-5) Sunday…Viper defenceman Brett Corkey, 19, has committed to play with the NCAA Colgate Raiders in New York for the 2013-14 season.