SPRUCE GROVE – A trio of one-minute wonders Thursday night at Grant Fuhr Arena had the Vernon Vipers on the brink of a third-straight berth in the Royal Bank Cup national Junior A hockey championships.
Each of their goals – two from game MVP Dylan Walchuk and the overtime winner by Bryce Kakoske – all came near the first minute of a period as the Snakes outlasted the Spruce Grove Saints 3-2 in Game 5 of the Doyle Cup regional championships.
The BCHL champion Vipers led the best-of-seven series 3-2 heading into Saturday night’s Game 6 where a win would allow them to defend their two-time national crown in Camrose, starting April 30.
After Vernon gained the Spruce Grove zone on its first overtime possession, defenceman Max Mowat fired from the point and the rebound went right to Kakoske who scored 35 seconds into the extra frame.
“Dave (Robinson) and Murph (Kyle Murphy) got after the puck right away and it squirted back to Mowat and the shot hit someone and I just happened to have a wide open net. It was like a nine iron, I just had a chop at it and it worked out well,” said a thick-bearded Kakoske.
“That was a good way to finish it – right at the start of overtime. We didn’t want to go too far into it. We’ve played the last two nights so it’s good to get it over with quick.”
Vernon needed just 66 seconds to hush 1,300 fans as Walchuk worked off the sidewall and, using a Saints’ defender as a screen, beat Vince Marozzi five-hole with a quick snapshot.
Scott Allen, Spruce Grove’s leading scorer, reignited the crowd 12 seconds later with his fourth goal of the series.
For perhaps the first time in the series, the two teams were able to match one another’s intensity and spent the next 40 minutes in a tight-checking affair. And for the second game in a row, Saints’ d-man Corey Chorneyko delivered a staggering hip check in the neutral zone, this time on Walchuk as he rushed up the right wing.
Spruce Grove had an opportunity to take the lead with a shortened 5-on-3 powerplay midway through the first period, but they were unable to penetrate Vernon’s triangle coverage. Saints’ head coach Jason Mckee felt a goal there would have been a game changer.
“I thought we battled really hard all night. We had our chances and it didn’t go in,” he said.
“If we’re willing to play the same way I think we’ll give ourselves a chance to win. We’re in a tough situation, but I think we’ll respond (in Game 6).”
Vernon forward Marcus Basara had a clear breakaway late in the first frame, but Marozzi (game MVP, 22 saves) came up with a well-timed stop.
Spruce Grove appeared to take a lead in the second period when Brett Switzer cut in from the right wing and fired on net. The goal light went on momentarily but the puck had hit the post and dropped in the crease behind Kirby Halcrow (21 saves) and stayed out.
Walchuk netted his second goal just 65 seconds into the third period on a powerplay. The Saints’ penalty killers suffered a collective brain cramp and decided to change all at once, allowing Halcrow to fire a clear pass to David Robinson at the far blueline. Hitting the zone at speed, Walchuk took a touch pass to go in on a partial breakaway, beating Marozzi low glove side.
“It was a mental error on our part. We can’t be doing that at this stage; they’re a good team and they’ll capitalize on opportunities like that,” said Saints’ winger David Glen, a Fort Saskatchewan product who forced OT midway through the third period.
Vernon had trouble clearing the zone, and after some slick passing and several quick shots on Halcrow, the hard-hitting forward buried the puck past the fallen Vernon keeper.
“Pretty complete effort but it was a tough one at the end. We left it too long, I guess,” said the well-spoken Glen, a three-year Saints’ veteran.
“This year we were really prepared to look past it (AJHL title) and we were really looking forward to this series. We were a lot more prepared to win this time and I think we will be ready to go hard here (in Game 6).
“We just have to remember we still have life here and that it’s not over until it’s over.”
Robinson had a glorious chance to put the game away late in regulation, but Marozzi somehow slid cross-crease to deny the Vernon captain’s one-timer on a pass from Malcolm Lyles at the sidewall.
Heading into the Doyle Cup, the Saints had just three home losses all season, including the AJHL playoffs where they went 12-1. With two road wins in a row, Vernon had all the momentum heading into Saturday, but head coach Mark Ferner was taking nothing for granted.
“This is a tough building to play in and they’ve proved it all year long. We just need to make sure we’re focussed and disciplined in our systems,” he said.
“You just got to stay on course. Both teams play a similar style and you don’t want to give up a lot and you have to work for everything that you’re going to get.
“(The difference between) winning and losing is very small. Just look at the game winner tonight. It was a shot that he couldn’t control the rebound and it could have landed on their stick, but it landed on ours.”
SNAKE BITES: The Vipers rolled with the same lineup as Game 4, with forwards Pat McGillis and Colton Sparrow and blueliner Phil Patenaude sitting out…There was no ice clean between regulation and overtime, just a short break and a 10-minute OT period. Had the game gone longer, the standard OT format would apply, with ice cleans and 20-minute sudden death periods…Ferner gave the Vipers a day off Saturday.