The revolving carousel atop the B.C. Hockey League’s Interior Division took another spin last weekend.
This time, it was the Vernon Vipers who snatched the keys to the Interior penthouse after earning a well-played 2-2 draw with the West Kelowna Warriors Saturday night at Kal Tire Place.
Vernon (14-7-3-4) holds a wafer-like lead over the Penticton Vees (15-6-1-3) and Merritt Centennials (16-10-1-1). Just four points back are the Warriors (14-9-1-2) and Salmon Arm SilverBacks (13-10-1-4), meaning one very competitive team will miss the post-season.
“I’ve never seen it this tight,” said Warriors’ head coach Rylan Ferster. “You have a bad week and you’re out of the playoffs. If it stays like this, it’s probably going to go down to the last two weeks of the season.”
With Vernon protecting a 2-1 lead going into the third period, their defence appeared poised to ride out a one-goal win in front of 1,830 fans, including a boisterous West Kelowna contingent.
A shorthanded snipe by third star Carl Hesler forced OT after Brett Mennear pick-pocketed Riley Guenther as the Vernon d-man went back to retrieve a loose puck. Mennear sent Hesler (12th goal) in alone, and he rolled a backhander up and over Austin Smith at 6:24.
Vernon head coach Jason Williamson said it was an uncharacteristic turnover for Guenther, who has been a steady influence since he came to the Viper den from the WHL Prince Albert Raiders.
“That’s not totally on Guenther because he’s been so good for us,” said Williamson. “It’s just a couple breakdowns that end up in the back of our net.
“Given the circumstances of us getting home at 4 a.m. (after 4-1 win over host Trail Smoke Eaters Friday night), I thought we had good energy.”
Demico Hannoun (7th) opened Vernon’s account 4:27 into the first period, taking a short feed from Chase McMurphy using some slick footwork to tuck the puck behind Andy Desautels, far side.
Later in the period, Vernon struggled to clear the zone on a number of shifts, and the Warriors capitalized with several turnovers, but were unable to solve Smith, who finished with 44 saves for first star.
“We collapsed pretty well and were able to prevent them from scoring,” said Smith, who credited Desautels (34 saves, second star) for his part in a stellar goalie battle.
“It was pretty competitive, going back and forth. After our last game, he was frustrated with guys crashing the net and guys getting in front of him, and we did that well again tonight. We made it tough on him.”
Smith, who was half a minute away from a shutout a night earlier in Trail, appears to be rounding into form after a lengthy absence to injury. The 20-year-old Calgary product said the overnight bus ride from Trail shouldn’t affect a players’ ability to perform.
“If you prepare the right way – get a cool down right after the game, get some rest and good food – it doesn’t necessarily affect you,” he said. “You just have to be able to recover properly.”
Vernon went ahead by two goals 1:27 into the second frame on a pinpoint wrister from the slot by Dexter Dancs (11th), but the Warriors replied just over a minute later as Adam Osczevski, with his first BCHL goal, knocked in his own rebound as the Warriors crashed Smith’s doorstep.
Both tenders were sharp in OT. Vernon’s Michael McNicholas had the best chance in the 4-on-4 period as he redirected Guenther’s slap pass on Desautels, who got just enough of the puck to steer it wide. Smith stoned Seb Lloyd point blank on a quick feed from Hesler from behind the net in double-OT.
“I’ve never played in a division like this before,” said Desautels, who was teammates with Guenther last season on the Raiders. “You can be four points out of first place and be out of a playoff spot. It’s crazy tight, but it’s awesome because every game is interesting. You can’t afford to take games off.”
The Snakes entertain the Cents Friday, followed by the last-place Smoke Eaters (7-17-2-1) Sunday (2 p.m.).
SNAKE BITES: Injured d-man Mark Hamilton and F Logan Mick are probable for weekend action, while F Mason Blacklock remains questionable…The Vipers’ first game at the 2014 RBC Cup will be against the Central champion Saturday, May 10 (7 p.m.).