Vipers earn chance for RBC repeat

Brockville netminder Justin Gilbert looks back to watch Viper forward Connor Jones' (#10) five-hole deke squeeze through his pads during semifinal action at the Royal Bank Cup Saturday afternoon at Credit Union Place. The Vipers won 2-0 to earn a berth in Sunday's final.

DAUPHIN, MAN. – The Vernon Vipers call him fashionably late. The Brockville Braves would probably call him a party crasher. After missing the entire round-robin at the Royal Bank Cup, the Vipers’ Connor Jones suited up for Saturday’s semifinal and scored the winner on a slick backhand deke, leading the Snakes to a 2-0 win over the eastern champion Braves of Ontario.

Seeing an opening up the left wing, the speedy Kootenay product charged up ice and dangled around Brockville defenceman Scott Dawson before feathering a shot through netminder Justin Gilbert’s legs midway through the third period.

“I thought I lost it and just kind of poked it at the last second. He (Gilbert, 33 saves) played a hulluva game, you’ve got to give him total credit,” said Jones, who set up twin brother Kellen with a cross-ice pass for a post-and-in insurance marker at 15:51.

“It took a couple periods to get the rust out. I think Kellen was secretly wishing to get put back with (Jonathan) Milhouse there,” he added, smiling.

The win gives the Vipers a chance become the first team to repeat as national junior A hockey champions since the Vernon Lakers did it in 1990 and ’91.

Now they get to sit back and quietly pray the host Dauphin Kings and La Ronge Ice Wolves go to a triple-overtime marathon in the other Saturday semi (5 p.m. PT).

Joked Viper netminder Graeme Gordon: “If they want to slug it out for as many periods as they want, that’s fine by me.”

Gordon, a North Vancouver product, says Connor’s return gave the Vipers a new dimension on offence, as well as a boost in confidence.

“That’s huge, not just for on the ice but in the room he’s such a leader, such a presence,” said Gordon.

The gold-medal game goes Sunday (noon PT) and will be aired live on TSN2, and again 7 p.m. PT (tape delay).

Realizing what was on the line, both teams were tentative from the outset. There was plenty of back-and-forth play, but no real scoring chances for either side in the early going. The Braves, sporting Chicago Blackhawks replica jerseys, tested Gordon with long shots, but the Viper tender stood tall.

Dylan Walchuk had the Vipers’ best chance in the opening frame, but he was stopped point blank by Gilbert, who was named Top Goalie the night before at the tournament banquet.

Scott Arnold, who claimed the Top Forward award, had a glorious chance to put Brockville on the board with a shorthanded breakaway early in the second period. Gordon stopped the Braves’ sniper with an acrobatic pad save.

“It’s obviously a tough loss in the semifinals with it being so close. 0-0 game going into the third, it’s a tough pill to swallow, but we’re happy to be one of the top-four teams in Canada,” said Arnold, a 20-year-old who will play next season with the NCAA Niagra Purple Eagles. “Our goal all year was to win Fred Page (Eastern Canadian championship). We accomplished our goal and anything after that was a bonus.”

The Braves boasted the top powerplay at the tournament, scoring 10 times on 29 attempts (34.48 per cent), but they didn’t generate much in either their round-robin or semifinal against the Vipers.

“They put a lot of pressure on us and that was a bit different than we were used to in the first couple of games,” said Arnold. “We just weren’t able to get things going.”

The Vipers controlled the majority of play over 40 scoreless minutes, and Vernon head coach Mark Ferner credited his squad for sticking with the game-plan, something they struggled with earlier in the tournament.

“As a group this was our best effort (so far). We just seem to be getting better and better as the tournament goes on,” said Ferner, who, like Braves’ head coach Todd Gill, is a former NHL defenceman. “I look at Brockville as being a lot like us. This thing could have went either way. We knew we had to try to be squeaky clean as possible, and Graeme had a great game, he really held us in it.”

Brockville led RBC scoring with 21 goals, and Gill credited Gilbert’s solid net presence for allowing him to free up the offence to take some risks against a speedy Viper forward corps.

“Their forwards are very active and fast, and certainly very talented. I thought we contained them… they weren’t getting too many quality scoring chances, but they got some shots. We were willing and able to give that up because of the way Gilbert had been playing,” said Gill.

“We didn’t get our cycle game going and 18 shots against a goaltender like we were playing just wasn’t good enough.”

Gracious in defeat, Gill added: “It’s been a great event altogether. The committee has put on a great show for us, there were five great hockey teams and it was an honour to play in it.”

SNAKE BITES: Kellen was awarded the Tubby Schmalz Award as the tournament’s Most Sportsmanlike Player. Smiled Ferner: “I know he’s not happy about it, but well-deserved. He quietly goes about his business, he’s a very honest player. We get 110 per cent effort every time he steps on the ice, regardless of the situation.”