The Vernon Vipers started October in the B.C. Hockey’s Interior Division cellar. But with six wins in their last seven games, they are one point from knocking on the penthouse door.
Vernon, now 9-5-1-2 (7-3 in their last 10), capped a three-game weekend road swing by stuffing the Alberni Valley Bulldogs 7-4 Sunday at Weyerhaeuser Arena. The Snakes fell 3-0 to the Nanaimo Clippers (7-7) Saturday at Frank Crane Arena.
The Vipers visit the first-place Penticton Vees (10-3-1-1) Friday at South Okanagan Events Centre before hosting the Merritt Centennials (9-7-1) Saturday at Kal Tire Place.
“We’ve been climbing, even with some key guys out,” said Vipers’ head coach Jason Williamson. “The guys have been finding ways to win hockey games.”
Sunday’s rebound effort was highlighted by a first-star, hat-trick performance from Mike McNicholas (5th, 6th, 7th goals). The offensive outburst from the Manhattan Beach, Calif. product couldn’t come at a better time as leading scorer Mason Blacklock is expected to miss at least a week with a lower-body injury.
Blacklock, third in the BCHL with 15-9-24 in 17 games, will also miss the Team Canada West selection camp for the World Junior A Challenge.
“We just gotta lean on some other guys to put up goals,” said Michael Statchuk, a second-year d-man who pocketed an empty-netter against Alberni (1-13-2-1) for his first-ever BCHL goal in 73 career games.
“It’s not pretty but it counts. It feels like a weight’s been lifted off my shoulders.”
Added Williamson: “He’s been really pressing, so now he can just relax that he’s got one in the column.”
Vernon’s Demico Hannoun (6th) and Alberni’s Justin Georgeson (2nd, shorthanded) swapped first-period singles before TJ Dumonceaux (1st) and McNicholas put the Vipers ahead by two 12:50 in the second frame.
The Dawgs’ Tryg Strand (6th) cut the lead to one, but McNicholas and Brendan Persley (3rd), collecting the winner with 43 seconds left in period two, gave Vernon a comfortable lead heading into the final frame.
Dumonceaux appeared to score the Snakes’ sixth goal early in the third period, but after conferring with the linesmen, referees Shane Alyward and Mark Pearce waved it off.
Alberni responded with goals 20 seconds apart by Hunter Stewart (3rd) and Scott Clark (1st) to make it a one-goal game.
“They shot two at the net that were rocket snipes that you couldn’t do again,” said Williamson. “Five-four game, but we hold on.”
McNicholas’ third snipe was an empty-netter.
Netminder Michael Stiliadis recorded 26 saves to win his Viper debut. Connor LaCouvee had 29 stops for Alberni.
“He did his job and gave us a chance to win,” said Williamson, of Stiliadis, who he plucked from the OJHL Georgetown Raiders.
“He looked nervous early, but settled in after that.”
Nanaimo keeper Jayson Argue recorded 25 saves for his second shutout Saturday.
Scoreless after two period, Mike Vandekamp’s Clippers posted goals nine seconds apart early in the third period. Bo Brauer (6th), from Vernon’s Spencer Hewson and Nicholas Gushue, had the first. Eric Margo (1st) scored off the ensuing faceoff to put the Vipers on their heels.
Brendan Taylor (6th) capped the scoring with a shorthanded empty-netter with 22 seconds left in regulation.
“We were just sluggish,” said Williamson. “We were uncharacteristic that game.”
The Clips survived some penalty trouble in the first period and then, in the second period, saw that they were able to take the game to the Vipers five-on-five.
“We started the game with a belief in ourselves and I think that’s a big step for us,” said Vandekamp. “The mentality was very good.
“We wanted to stay on the attack. We’re not real believers in sitting back and trying to protect.”
Meanwhile, Alex Gillies scored the winner, his league-leading 17th snipe, with 3:34 to play as the Salmon Arm SilverBacks bounced the Coquitlam Express 4-3 Saturday night at the Shaw Centre.
The Gorillas are 8-6-1-1.
SNAKE BITES: Former Viper Rob Short, now playing minor pro with the Louisiana Ice Gators of the SPHL, was in an accidental collision in practice last week and suffered multiple fractures to his spine and neck, as well as a dislocation to his spine and neck. Short, the first-ever Viper to have his number (No. 20) retired, underwent an eight-hour surgery last Thursday to repair his spine. He was released from hospital Tuesday, and his surgeons and specialists are hopeful he will make a full recovery. “I am exceptionally lucky to not have been paralyzed,” Short said on his Facebook page…Vernon captain Ryan Renz, who has missed the last 14 games to injury, could return to action this weekend.