It was a case of two B.C. Hockey League teams going in very different directions Friday night at Wesbild Centre.
The Vernon Vipers got a goal and an assist from first star Darren Nowick for their fifth straight win, a fight-filled 4-1 decision over the Merritt Centennials, losers of six straight.
With no penalties in the first period, and just six in the second, the two teams spiraled into chaos in the final frame, combining for 84 penalty minutes and a trio of scraps. It was due in large part to frustration reaching breaking point for the boisterous Centennials, something they are normally able to induce in other teams.
Vernon head coach Jason Williamson said it was symptomatic of the two teams meeting for the third time in a month. They tangle a fourth time Tuesday at Nicola Valley Arena.
The Vipers had a chance to take over fourth in the Interior Conference when they visited the Chilliwack Chiefs (the teams share identical 25-20-1-2 records) Saturday night at Prospera Centre. They host Mike Vandekamp’s Nanaimo Clippers (22-17-0-9) Thursday at Wesbild.
“You play a team like Merritt as much as we have in the last little bit, pretty soon tempers are going to boil over,” said Williamson. “I’m sure they’re a little bit frustrated with the way things have been going and we’ve been in that spot before too.
“I think we frustrated them by being a little bit more physical than they were. We kind of took a page out of their book and we were frustrating to play against for sure.”
Third star Riley Hunt, with his first-ever BCHL goal, opened the scoring at 7:14 of the first period, igniting 1,750 Wesbild fans by beating netminder Tyler Steel with a bar-down snap shot from the slot.
“I took a little while – 48 games – but it’s a good feeling, even better that we’ve won five straight now,” said the 16-year-old Hunt, who is fast becoming a fan favourite for his feisty play, despite being just 5-foot-5 and 155-pounds.
“At the beginning of the year, it’s getting your feet wet in the league, but now that things are rolling along, I’m starting to feel a little more comfortable out there. We’re getting a lot of bodies back so I’m starting to play with some regular players too.”
Merritt, second in the Interior at 26-17-2-5, equalized on the game’s first man advantage, with Evan Stack (23rd goal) jumping all over a loose puck in the slot at 7:04 of the second period.
The Cents kept pushing, hemming the Vipers in their own end, but it was Vernon that scored, with John Knisley pocketing his seventh of the season. Heading to the net unmarked, he arrived just in time to one-time a heads-up centering feed from Nowick.
“I saw Knisley streaking to the middle and he had a great shot,” said Nowick, adding it will take a few games before he hits top form.
“I made sure I was on the ice skating as hard as I could, and I stayed on the ice after practice skating just to keep my legs going. It’s still a ways to go, but I’m on a good line with Knisley and (Colton) Sparrow, and I feel good.”
The Vipers’ Mike Zalewski (31st) capped a frantic final minute of the second period by dangling around a couple of Merritt defenders before beating Steel with a top-shelf buzzer beater. Seconds earlier, Nowick nearly converted on a breakaway stretch pass from Sparrow, and after crashing into the end boards, stripped a d-man and had another go at net.
“It killed us,” said Merritt head coach Luke Pierce, of Zalewski’s goal with 1.5 seconds on the clock.
“Their second goal was just an unfortunate mistake, and I thought we were really carrying the play at that point. You just have to regroup and get yourself out of the period.
“Vernon was tenacious, they frustrated our team like nobody else has to this point and hopefully our guys learn from that.”
Nowick, who missed the last 10 games with a shoulder injury, gave Vernon some breathing room in the third period when his wraparound attempt deflected off Steel’s stick to complete the scoring.
That spelled the end for Steel, a Vernon native who allowed four goals on 28 shots. Lino Chimienti recorded six saves in relief.
Viper netminder Kirby Halcrow was rock-steady in posting 28 saves for second star.
The Cents’ Silvan Harper and Vernon’s Aaron Hadley started the third-period fireworks with a short-lived tilt at 8:48. On the next shift, Merritt’s Sean Maktaak went after Ben Gamache, who landed some quick shots in close. Both Maktaak and Harper earned misconducts for instigating, while Hadley picked up an extra minor for throwing punches while the linesmen were trying to break up his fight.
With 1:20 to play, 6-foot-5 Merritt d-man Billy Marshall and Vernon’s Turner Lawson completed the fisticuffs with an entertaining bout.
In other Interior action Friday, the Chiefs outgunned the Westside Warriors 6-4, the Prince George Spruce Kings iced the Trail Smoke Eaters 4-1, and the Penticton Vees trashed the Salmon Arm SilverBacks 10-1.