David Robinson used his hands in more ways than one Friday night at Wesbild Centre.
The Vernon Viper captain scored the winner early in the second period, and then buckled Mike Puddifant with a devastating right hook during a lengthy scrap later in the frame as the Snakes stuffed the Alberni Valley Bulldogs 4-1 before 1,600 B.C. Hockey League fans.
The small, speedy Bulldogs showed plenty of grit in the opening frame, finishing checks and pressuring the puck all over the rink. Yet it was Vernon who opened the scoring as Dylan Walchuk (21st goal) stretched out to redirect first star Darren Nowick’s centering pass past Alberni netminder Frank Slubowski midway through the frame.
Vernon head coach Mark Ferner credited the Bulldogs for bringing the best out of the Vipers.
“I thought they got the better of us in the first period even though we had the lead. Going into the third it was up for grabs and we scored on our opportunities.
“Those are the type of games you want to play in. We had to move our feet, we had to move the puck. We knew we were going to get finished (by checks) and our guys responded in a positive way.”
The Vipers didn’t seem to find any real rhythm until their fourth line – Colton Sparrow, Trevor Fitzgerald and Marcus Basara – turned in a solid shift shortly before the first goal. Sparrow and Marley Keca, a former North Okanagan Knight, entertained fans with a quick, evenly-fought tilt in the second period.
Robinson made it 2-0 Vernon 1:40 into the second frame after defenceman Stevie Weinstein joined the rush and retrieved his own dump-in from the corner. The nimble blueliner threw the puck in front and Robinson was there to redirect it off Slubowski’s mask and in the net for his team-leading 29th goal.
Alberni’s Josh Mitchell (15th), who leads the Dawgs with 54 points, pulled his team within one a few minutes later as he circled around a Viper defender and pulled Kirby Halcrow out of position before snapping a quick shot over the Viper netminder’s shoulder.
It wasn’t the homecoming he wanted, but Alberni captain Trent Dorais liked the way his battled in the early going.
“In the first 40 minutes it could have gone either way. A couple bad turnovers cost us a couple goals and our third period wasn’t the best.”
Dorais, who plays alongside fellow Vernon native and former Viper Sawyer Mick, has settled in nicely in Alberni and loves the ocean fishing.
“It’s been a fun ride. I went to Port Alberni and didn’t know what to expect, but I had a good season there and was able to prove to my coach (Paul Esdale) I was a leader on the team. It’s an honour to be the captain of the team this year.”
With the games still up for grabs heading into the third period, Vernon sealed the win with a pair of quick goals. Defenceman Malcolm Lyles went into juggernaut mode, shrugging off a check as he broke across the blueline before feeding a gorgeous cross-ice pass to Nowick (eighth), who picked the top corner on Slubowski.
Less than two minutes later, Bryce Kakoske was stripped of the puck as he dangled through the slot against three Alberni defenders, but linemate Kyle Murphy (14th) came speeding into the hashmarks to rip the loose puck past Slubowski with a hard slap shot to complete the offence.
“Everyone was hungry, everyone wanted the puck and was going to the net and getting good shots and good opportunities,” said Nowick.
“We heard Penticton was down 4-0 against Trail (6-0 final) and we wanted to get ahead of them by six points and try to get the first seed. We want that first bye to get a good rest for a week and come out hard for playoffs.”
Despite recording just 18 saves, Slubowski was the main reason it was a one-goal game heading into the third period. The Prince Rupert native, who turned 20 on New Year’s Eve, robbed Dane Muench twice with his glove on a pair of quick snap shots from the slot. He also stoned John Knisley on a clear breakaway, staying with the shifty Viper forward long enough to get a pad on his backhand attempt.
“Frankie has been great all year. He’s been one of the best, if not the best, goalies and he’s proven that throughout the year,” said Esdale. “That’s why it’s disappointing to give up those two at the end because he played so hard.
“Our guys battled hard, but if you give up those quality chances, a team like Vernon is going to capitalize.”
Halcrow anchored the Vipers with a solid 29-save showing to earn second star. The hulking tender was at his best when he dove cross-crease to make a stop on Connor Varley as he tried to one-time a quick pass during a late first-period powerplay.
“It was pretty fast-paced, not too many whistles. Those are fun games to play in,” smiled Halcrow, who makes the most out of the alternating goalie rotation with Blake Voth.
“It’s nice to have a break in between games, unlike what I had before (in Quesnel),” he joked. “It’s a little bit easier on the body.
“It’s a good, healthy relationship. We like to joke around with each other and play out together on the outdoor rink. In practices we push each other pretty hard. It’s a lot of fun.”
Vernon are 9-1 in their last 10 games and improved to 32-10-4-8 overall. They were six points clear of the second-place Penticton Vees in the Interior Conference after the Vees fell 6-0 to the visiting Trail Smoke Eaters Friday night at the South Okanagan Events Centre.
The Snakes visit the red hot Salmon Arm SilverBacks (33-17-2-0) Wednesday night.