While Vancouver was busy entertaining the world for the Winter Olympic opening ceremony, the Vernon Vipers put on a little fireworks display of their own Friday night at Wesbild Centre.
In an emotionally charged B.C. Hockey League game that clearly meant more than the two points at stake, the Snakes came out with their most physical effort of the season to earn a 5-3 decision over the Penticton Vees in front of 2,432 fans.
The Vipers, who hosted the Prince George Spruce Kings (16-34-1-4) Saturday night at Wesbild, will look to even the season series with Penticton at 3-3 when they visit the South Okanagan Events Centre Wednesday night.
From the opening faceoff, the first-place Vipers (46-6-0-3) took it to the second-place Vees (44-8-0-3), as the Jones boys, Kellen and Connor, set the tone with big hits on Byron Sorenson and Alex Szczechura on their first shift.
In Vernon’s zone, Sahir Gill levelled Vees’ rookie Beau Bennett in the crease after he rang iron on Penticton’s first scoring chance.
Third star Kellen (10th goal) netted the lone first-period tally at 3:52, sweeping in to bury the loose puck after Connor (first star) was checked trying to dangle through slot.
“We went in looking at it as a playoff game and our team really started to play together and really bought into the system – dumping pucks, hitting guys, all the basic things we need to do to win,” said Connor, who railroaded Andrew Pickering with a monstrous open-ice hit in the third period.
“We know Penticton is chasing us, so this win in huge for us. It’s unreal. It’s like a playoff game, great crowd tonight, they were behind us the whole time. Those games are the best.”
Vernon extended its lead in the second frame with a pair of powerplay goals two minutes apart. Mike Collins (28th) walked into slot and wired a shot post-and-in past netminder Sean Bonar at 6:38. Cole Ikkala (21st), standing on Bonar’s doorstep, tipped Connor’s point shot for the other goal.
Penticton responded shortly after when second star Joey Laleggia (11th) drove up the left wing and unleashed a gorgeous shot over netminder Blake Voth’s shoulder.
“It’s always a battle coming into their barn and trying to get a win. We’ve done it twice this year but we knew this was going to be a hard one,” said Laleggia, a Burnaby product.
“Bottom line is they capitalized on their chances. Whenever they got a chance inside the slot they buried it.”
Connor, with his team-leading 34th goal, restored the three-goal cushion late in the second period, converting a sensational spinning backhand pass from Kellen on an odd-man rush.
Fancy goals and highlight-reel hits aside, Vipers’ head coach Mark Ferner was most impressed with his team’s commitment to systems.
“That was probably one of our most physical games, but at the same time we were doing a lot of good things away from the puck. Our whole group came to play tonight. Everybody was on the same page.”
The Vees battled back in the third period after referee Jim Maniago, who made some questionable calls against both teams, placed Penticton on a lengthy 5-on-3.
Back-to-back powerplay goals by Garrett Milan (26th), on a sneaky backdoor pass from Bennett, and Bennett (38th), on a nice one-timer to Voth’s right, pulled Penticton within a goal.
Ferner praised his crew for not hitting the panic button.
“It’s a good learning experience for us. A lot of teams would have went the other way, but I thought our guys, especially on the bench, responded in a positive way.”
Any momentum the Vees gained quickly evaporated when Logan Johnston jumped Ikkala right after a faceoff. Not only did Ikkala win the fight with a hard takedown, but Johnston picked up the instigator penalty.
Livid with the Vees’ antics, Ferner, normally slow to anger, exchanged several heated verbal volleys with Penticton head coach Fred Harbinson between the benches. Maniago sent both bench bosses to the dressing room early.
“It’s 4-3, your obviously still in the hockey game and they jump one of our players,” said Ferner. “If you’re going to be a tough guy, then be a tough guy and have some honour.”
Added Harbinson: “Mark wasn’t happy with Logan going after Ikkala there, but we felt there was a head shot thrown our way. I don’t care what the score was, we’re not going to sit back and let them steamroll over us.
“I was happy with the way our guys battled right to the end. It’s going to make for a real wild one on Wednesday.”
On the ensuing powerplay, Braden Pimm (25th) posted the insurance marker with a bullet from the slot with 33 seconds remaining.
For the final crescendo, Vipers’ captain tangled with the Vees’ Joey Holka in the dying seconds.
SNAKE BITES: The Vees played without leading scorer Denver Manderson (113 points), who has missed the last several games with and injury…Vipers’ netminder Graeme Gordon hasn’t played in six games since suffering a lower body injury. Ferner said he is day-to-day…The North Okanagan Knights saw an end to their Kootenay International Junior Hockey League playoff hopes after they fell 6-2 to the host Princeton Posse Friday night at the District Arena. Goals by Trevor Fitzgerald and Karson Holt had the 11-34-0-4 Knights leading 2-1 after 20 minutes, but the Posse (30-13-0-6) stormed back with five unanswered goals. North Okanagan closes the season when they host the Penticton Lakers (13-31-0-4), who clinched the final berth in the Okanagan Division, Wednesday night at Nor-Val Sports Centre in Armstrong.