The Vernon Vipers are back in first place, at least until tonight when the Penticton Vees visit the Merritt Centennials.
The Vipers re-gained the B.C. Hockey League Interior Division luxury suite by stuffing the stubborn Trail Smoke Eaters 6-3 in a Sunday matinee before 1,300 fans at Kal Tire Place.
Vernon looked to their back end for offence as former Prince Albert Raider Riley Guenther led the dee core with 1+2 for first star as the Vipers improved to 16-7-3-4.
The second-place Vees are one point back of the Snakes, while the third-place Centennials sit four points behind Vernon. Penticton grabbed Canada West centre Steen Cooper in a Monday trade with the Cowichan Valley Capitals.
Josh Bryan, with a soft wrister in the mid slot, and Jason Bird, with a bomb from the point, also supplied goals from the Vipers’ defence. Forwards TJ Dumonceaux, Dexter Dancs and Chase McMurphy, with an empty-netter in the final minute, completed the Snakes’ offence against the last-place Smoke Eaters. Dumonceaux and Guenther netted goals three minutes apart early in the first period to jumpstart the Vipers.
“It was a decent game for us,” said Guenther, a 19-year-old Calgary product. “We didn’t play a full 60 like we wanted to, but when it counted, we got the job done.”
The 6-foot, 185-pounder added some spice to an otherwise dull affair by getting the best of 5-foot-8 Smokie agitator Riley Brandt in a late fight in the Trail zone.
“He gave Chico (Demico Hannoun) a pretty good slash and I was kind of already in there and I knew I was a fight away from a Gordie (Howe hat trick) so I just kind of went for it,” laughed Guenther.
Guenther played 67 games with the Raiders, who stuck with a few younger dee over him. He had other offers after being released.
“I have no regrets. I’m having a ton of fun. I like the city, we have great fans and I’m having a great time. I’ve been working on finding consistency in my offensive game and I’m hoping that’s starting to come now.”
Guenther realizes the Vipers can’t take a shift off with 28 games left in the regular season, in a division where perhaps the most nutritional pre-game meal separates the five top teams most nights.
“It’s crazy. You don’t see that very often that you have one weekend off and you’re out of a playoff spot, so it’s tight and we gotta keep the wheels going.
“We try to just focus on ourselves. Usually the team that makes the fewest mistakes is the team that’s gonna win. We have our pre-game sheets and we key on certain things the other team’s doing, but we mostly try and focus on ourselves and make sure we’re playing hard.”
Trail, who gave up an empty-netter in a 3-1 loss to the Salmon Arm SilverBacks the night before, dropped to 7-20-2-1, tied for last overall with the Chilliwack Chiefs. The Smokies earlier Saturday traded Vernon’s Michael Roberts to the Salmon Arm SilverBacks in return for future considerations. The ‘Backs assigned ex-Viper Riley Hunt to the KIJHL.
Affiliate Colby Livingstone, with a deuce, and Joel Webb countered for the Smokies, who battled the Vipers hard most of the way. Livingstone struck the post with a shot in the dying minutes and Trail down by one goal. The 17-year-old Livingstone has 13 goals and 31 points with his hometown KIJHL Creston Valley Thunder Cats.
Viper centre Mike McNicholas earned three assists and moved into sole possession of seventh spot in the BCHL points derby with 12 goals and 37 points. Dumonceaux also pocketed two assists and took second star with Bryan picking up one helper and third star. Michael Statchuk, a d-man-turned-winger, skated miles and was named the Fortis B.C. Energy Player of the Game.
The Vipers outshot the Smokies 35-28 with Austin Smith improving to 7-4-3 and Adam Todd dipping to 1-4.
Lumby product Dylan Bowen, dealt to the Smokies from Merritt on Nov. 13, says the Smokies are playing for the future with a playoff berth long gone.
“It’s been a bit of a shocker to get traded. I didn’t really think it was on the board. A new group of guys, a new direction for the team and hopefully it just goes up from here. We’re tying to rebuild the foundation. The coach says it’s there. We need a couple of key guys and hopefully we can start moving up and we’ll be on the other side of the table instead of the wrong side. I can’t really put my finger on what’s going wrong at this point.”
On the Vipers, Bowen said: “They’re a good hockey team. They bring a lot of skill to and hard work to the table. We were almost right there with them ‘till the end, just some little things.”
Vernon begins a three-game road swing Friday night in Victoria against the Grizzlies (19-7-3-1). The Vipers face the Cowichan Valley Capitals Saturday night in Duncan and meet the Coquitlam Express Sunday afternoon. Vernon’s next home date is Friday, Dec. 13 versus Trail.
Bryan, who landed in the Snakes’ den along with McNicholas in exchange for Aaron Hadley last season, says morale is sky-high in the dressing room.
“I think everyone’s pretty excited. We’ve been playing well lately. We’ve had one loss in our last how many games and we’ve got points in almost all of them. I don’t think anybody wants to go home for Christmas, I think everyone wants to stay here and keep playing so that’s a good sign.”
Bryan has received recent scholarship interest from Mankato State and Bentley and hopes to sign a letter of intent soon. He says the key to beating the Grizzlies in the ultra warm Bear Mountain Arena is to keep the mighty Fitzgerald triplets off the powerplay.