One couldn’t blame Jason Williamson for taking the odd peek up in the press box Sunday afternoon at Wesbild Centre.
There sitting in civvies were his leading scorer Darren Nowick, ultra-talented centre Ben Gamache, sniper Johnny Knisley, suspended power forward Jedd Soleway and defencemen Luke Juha and Max Mowat.
And after losing clutch winger Colton Sparrow to injury early in the second period, things got even worse as Williamson took a look at his bench. He often was forced to play a patched fourth-line versus B.C. Hockey League top scorer Paul De Jersey’s super line a few times.
The result was predictable as the Vipers, running on fumes after 40 minutes of pretty good hockey, fell 5-1 to the Prince George Spruce Kings. The Vipers, perhaps inspired by 17 congregations on Faith Night, stopped the high-flying Coquitlam Express 6-2 Saturday night before 2,116 fans.
Captain Patrick McGillis, who scored the Viper goal and was going down to block shots in the final 90 seconds, summed up the loss best.
“Three games in two-and-a-half days playing with three lines up front playing against top teams like that, it’s definitely fatiguing mentally and physically,” said the Calgary product. “The guys put in a good two periods, but I think fatigue kicked in, in the third period.”
McGillis said the Vipers will turn their focus to beating the Trail Smoke Eaters and Westside Warriors this weekend, while hoping either the Spruce Kings or Chilliwack Chiefs sweep their two-game series starting Thursday night up north.
De Jersey, who has 33 goals and 70 points, and fourth-liner Sean Landrey each scored twice for the Spruce Kings, who moved to 20-15-2-3 for 45 points and third place in the Interior Conference, one point in front of the Chiefs, who stuffed the Smokies 5-2 Sunday.
Vernon fell to 18-18-1-2, five points back of Chilliwack, who hold down the fourth and final playoff berth. The Vipers haven’t missed the playoffs since the 2000-01 season.
“I thought we played a pretty good game, a little slow in the second, but we made up for it in the third,” said Spruce Kings’ captain Ben Matthews.
“We play Vernon (twice more) this year, and these are all like playoff games. It’s getting down to crunch time at the end of the season. They’re a good team and stuff, but we know we can compete with anyone in the league.”
Added Patrick Chore, who joined Prince George from the Junior B North Okanagan Knights 17 games ago: “It was a pretty good team effort. All our lines were going. Our fourth line got two goals which was huge for us. We lost our last two so this was a must-win for us so our confidence was definitely up when we got the lead.”
Chore, for the first time in his career, played against his twin brother, Eric, summoned from the Knights by the Vipers, along with d-man John Saunders.
Newcomer Colton Cyr was solid all weekend, setting up McGillis along the wall on a late second-period powerplay Sunday. Cyr and d-men Ryan Renz and Sean Robertson provided extraordinary service killing a 5-on-3 with Brendan Persley and Aaron Hadley in the penalty box shortly before McGillis scored to make it 2-1.
“Obviously, we got a little sluggish near the end, but we knew they’d be tired too; they were doing the same as us playing three (games) in three,” said Cyr. “It kind of got away from us. We wanted to keep the puck down low, considering their d-men probably got pretty tired after playing Penticton (4-0 loss Saturday) so that was our game-plan, but we turned pucks over and it just didn’t work out for us.”
Gerry Fitzgerald, playing on a line with his triplet brothers, Myles and Leo, also scored for the Spruce Kings.
Landrey opened the Spruce Kings’ offence off a scramble from the low slot, seven minutes in, for his third of the season. De Jersey then picked off an Adam Tambellini pass in front of goalie Danny Todosychuk and buried his own rebound, shorthanded, with 45 seconds left in the first period.
The Vipers were outshot 17-4 and outplayed badly in the third as the Spruce Kings managed three even-strength goals. Prince George outshot Vernon 35-26.
Todoyschuk, getting his second straight start, was solid. Thompson made numerous stellar saves in the opening 40 minutes, also having the luxury of the Vipers shooting low and directly into his pads.
On Saturday night, Persley pulled his first-ever BCHL hat trick as the Snakes snapped a four-game losing streak with a highly entertaining win over the red-hot Express.
The Kelowna native scored once in the first period, and added a pair of insurance markers in the third, once on a slick breakaway deke, and again on a one-timer set up by Turner Lawson.
Vernon managed four unanswered first-period goals, with Mike Zalewski, Tambellini and Cyr, also scoring.
The hard-hitting affair featured an quick scrap between Lawson, who has temporarily been shifted to forward, and Mitch Nardi of the Express (22-13-2-2) late in the first frame. Soleway earned a major and a two-game suspension for hammering Express defenceman Clinton Atkinson into the end boards later in the first period.
Todosychuk (43 saves) had to be sharp as the Vipers were overwhelmed in their own zone at times.