Morning Star Staff
Two more wins and they’re in. That was the scenario facing the Vernon Vipers after a huge 2-1 victory over the first-place Penticton Vees before 1,818 fans Friday night at the South Okanagan Events Centre.
The Vipers faced the second-place West Kelowna Warriors Saturday night at Kal Tire Place needing just four points to clinch a playoff berth in the B.C. Hockey League Interior Conference.
As of Sunday morning, the Vipers have five regular-season tilts remaining. They have road games in Trail against the last-place Smoke Eaters and Merritt versus the Centennials, 4-1 upset winners over the host Powell River Kings Friday night.
Vernon has home dates with the Salmon Arm SilverBacks and Penticton.
The third-place Vipers improved to 27-16-4-6 by defeating the Vees for the second time in six meetings this season. The Cents were five points back, while the SilverBacks – 5-1 losers to the Surrey Eagles – were three digits back of Merritt.
Penticton’s scoring woes resumed Friday night as they netted one goal for the 12th time this season. And it was hardly a classic, coming 17 seconds off the opening puck drop.
“It was one of the flukiest goals I’ve ever seen,” said Viper head coach Jason Williamson.
The Vees got the puck deep and reversed to the far side, where d-man Patrick Sexton was guarding the blueline. Sexton fired a wrister on net, hoping for a tip or rebound. However, the puck started to sail high and Vipers’ d-man Riley Guenther reached up to glove down the floater and punched the puck up and over goalie Austin Smith.
“We re-grouped and played a strong physical game,” said Williamson. It was a really good playoff-style game and we got better goaltending (than they did in 6-1 loss a month ago in Vernon). Their goalie (Oliver Mantha) was also very good.”
The Vipers won without NHL Central Scouting-rated forwards Mason Blacklock and Demico Hannoun, both on injured reserve.
“Our top guys played a lot and our defence kept their fast and shifty forwards to the outside,” added Williamson. “They’re small up front and they had trouble getting to our net.”
Monster Vees’ d-man Chris Rygus put a shoulder into Viper winger Brendan Persley, sending Persley into orbit, early in the game. Persley shook it off and the hitting went both ways all night.
The Vipers levelled the score midway through the second period when Liam Coughlin gave it to red-hot Dexter Dancs on the right flank. Dancs, a former Vee, then found Coughlin in the middle of the zone. With everybody expecting Coughlin to shoot, he quickly went back-door to Michael McNicholas for the one-timer into the open net.
McNicholas leads the Vipers with 22 goals and 66 points, just ahead of Dancs, who has 25 snipes and 60 points.
Dancs found a soft spot between the Penticton defence and was pulled down by d-man Chris Rygus at 6:48 of the third period, earning a penalty shot.
Dancs skated out wide, cruised in front and beat Mantha glove side.
Mantha, a 21-year-old Quebec product, is 0-2 in his last two starts, with a 2.06 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage. He is 15-8.
He had a good sequence late in the first, stopping two bang-bang chances on the doorstep during a delayed penalty call against the Vees.
In the second frame, Mantha made a fabulous leg save off of Brett Mulcahy, who made a move to elude a defender in the right circle.
The Vees, who have six players with 10 or more goals, went 0-for-6 on the powerplay, missing on three man-advantage chances in the third period. The Vipers were 0-for-4 on the powerplay.
Smith recorded 28 saves, improving to 16-12-3. He was backed up by Vernon Midget Josh Evans with Danny Todyschuk on IR. Zach Dyment of the North Okanagan Knights was scheduled to be Smith’s caddy Saturday night.
Penticton didn’t lose any ground on West Kelowna since the Warriors falling 8-5 to the Victoria Grizzlies before 820 fans at Royal LePage Place.
Jesse Schwartz and Myles Fitzgerald each bagged deuces for Victoria (32-13-3-3). The Grizz, who share first place in the Island Division with Powell River, just got Leo Fitzgerald, one of the triplets, back from fourth months on IR.
Former Viper Jason Bird scored first-period goals two minutes apart, as Merritt surprised the Kings. Both Merritt and Salmon Arm had six games left going into Saturday action.
Ex-Viper Chase McMurphy pocketed 1+2 as Surrey stopped Salmon Arm. Vernon’s Alex Gillies returned from injury and netted his 25th of the year before 640 fans at South Surrey Arena.
Danton Heinen scored twice for the Eagles, who have clinched fourth in the Mainland Division.