That RBC Cup championship banner cast a pretty big shadow after it was raised to the rafters at Wesbild Centre Friday night.
The fresh-faced Vernon Vipers, charged with defending the club’s national junior A hockey title, looked like a nervous bunch as they fell 4-1 to the Salmon Arm SilverBacks in their 2010-11 B.C. Hockey League regular-season opener before nearly 2,000 fans.
Vipers’ head coach/GM Mark Ferner described his team’s performance as “unacceptable,” but shouldered much of the blame himself.
“It was a big night for our hockey team, for our fans. I’m pretty sure there were guys in there who couldn’t feel their legs. It’s a pretty unbelievable opportunity to be able to go through something like that,” he said, of the banner raising ceremony before the opening faceoff.
“I will take ownership for this loss because obviously I didn’t have them prepared.”
Opening day jitters aside, the SilverBacks looked like a team that came to play and, backstopped by netminder Kris Moore’s 28-save, second-star performance, they were full credit for the win.
The two clubs tangled again Saturday night at the Sunwave Centre in Salmon Arm.
Neither team looked all that steady in the first 10 minutes. The Gorillas’ Josh Manson made good use of the scrambled play, delivering solid body checks on Viper defenceman Philip Patenaude and winger Gus Correale in the opening minutes.
Moore, a Calgary native acquired in the offseason from the Camrose Kodiaks, came up with the first of several solid saves, flashing a pad to deny Aaron Hadley after centreman John Knisley fed him a drop pass in the slot.
Vernon struck first on the powerplay at 12:55 as captain Dave Robinson burst from the corner and was stripped going to the net. Dylan Walchuk (third star) slid the loose puck just inside the left post before Moore could react.
Walchuk, an 18-year-old McBride product, didn’t think the hype around the banner raising was an acceptable excuse for the Vipers’ poor showing.
“It maybe brings a little nervousness, but it doesn’t really factor in because it’s a whole new season,” he said.
“We just didn’t show up as a team tonight and we didn’t have a very good effort. But we’ve got to go through those growing pains. It was wake-up call for us.
“We’re going to have to gel here as a group pretty quickly and just come out every night with a better effort.”
Salmon Arm responded on the very next shift as Devin Muller charged into Vernon’s zone, pulled a nice toe drag to free up some space before beating Blake Voth (23 saves) with a quick shot from the faceoff dot.
A few minutes later, SilverBack veteran Dave Killip went in on an odd-man rush, flipping a gorgeous saucer pass over a Viper defender’s stick to set up Brett Knowles (first star) for an open net one-timer to make it 2-1 after 20 minutes.
“Killip gave me an open net so I can’t really take much credit for it,” smiled Knowles, a second-year SilverBack who is enjoying a bigger role with the team.
“It feels good to have more responsibility. We lost some good players, but we got some good players in as well.”
After losing a pair of preseason games to Vernon last weekend, Salmon Arm head coach Tim Kehler was thrilled with how his squad responded.
“At the best of times it is a tough building to come into and win, and particularly on a night when they’re raising that championship banner I think it was nice motivation for our guys,” said the first-year coach.
“It’s an intimidating place to play, and rightfully so. The Vipers are still the champs until someone shows them otherwise.”
Moore did his part to keep it scoreless in the second period, coming cross-crease to stuff Hadley on a great feed from Michael Zalewski. He then squeezed his shoulder to stop Darren Nowick on his doorstep.
Said Kehler: “It looked like the kids had a lot of confidence with him behind them and he just looked in control right throughout. He’s a big-bodied guy who is strong in his position and he made the saves he needed to make.”
Salmon Arm killed off a critical 5-on-3 late in the second period, not allowing the Vipers anything in the way of offence. Kehler said it was a critical point in the game.
“Other than those looks we gave them on the powerplay, I don’t think we gave them anything,” he said.
“Our structure was terrific, we defended well and I really liked the way we played in the third.”
Voth was tested early in the third period as Bryce Kakoske’s pass back to the point cleared the offensive zone and was scooped up by Cody Michelle at centre ice for a clear breakaway. The Vernon keeper just got a toe on Michelle’s low backhand attempt.
Just when the play looked like it was starting to open up for Vernon in the third period, the SilverBacks struck twice in 65 seconds to ice the game. Jarryd Ten Vaanholt deflected Jayson Reardon’s powerplay point shot for the first one at 7:01. Taylor Fauchoux buried the rebound off a Brandon Mistal’s shot to complete the scoring.
SNAKE BITES: The Vipers were without 20-year-olds Adam Thompson and Kyle Murphy Friday night due to injury… Thompson, Stevie Weinstein and Kakoske will serve as alternate captains this season… Former Viper Trent Dorais, a Vernon product, will wear the ‘C’ for the Alberni Valley Bulldogs.