SALMON ARM – Welcome back to the century club, Vernon Vipers.
The Snakes fired a pair of powerplay goals in 4-1 win over the Salmon Arm SilverBacks Friday night at the Sunwave Centre, clinching their first B.C. Hockey League pennant since the 2002-03 season.
Vernon entered their Saturday-night tilt against the Westside Warriors at Royal LePage Place with 101 points. They close the regular season by entertaining the Surrey Eagles (30-22-0-6) in a 2 p.m. matinee today at Wesbild Centre.
The Vipers haven’t turned in this good of a regular season since centreman Lanny Gare scored 111 points to lead them to a club record 106-point campaign back in 1998-99.
With the pennant comes a first-round playoff bye, meaning the Vipers won’t see action again until they host Game 1 of the Interior Conference semifinals, starting Tuesday, March 9 at Wesbild.
The best-of-seven Interior and Coastal elimination rounds begin Friday.
Vipers’ head coach Mark Ferner had nothing but praise for his players, who he relentlessly pushed and prodded all season.
“Our guys should be proud of what they have accomplished here. There is only one team that can call themselves league champions and that was one of our goals this year – to finish first overall and have home-ice advantage (in playoffs).”
Ferner noted the constant pressure by the second-place Penticton Vees chasing them for the pennant helped the Vipers stay focussed.
“If we had been sitting there on a 10- or 12-point cushion, that’s not necessarily an easy thing for the coaching staff to deal with. But this is a pretty easy group to motivate. Day in and day, out these guys came in and worked hard and did the things that we asked them to do.”
Despite allowing the opening goal, the Vipers (49-6-0-3) dominated the first period, outshooting Salmon Arm 15-4.
After SilverBack sniper Mark Zengerle banged home his 33rd goal before 1,356 fans, defenceman Dan Nycholat (7th goal) answered for Vernon two minutes later, converting a nice passing play between Cory Kane and Robbie Short (second star).
The Vipers’ speed down low soon began posing problems for Salmon Arm’s injury-depleted blueline, drawing them into penalty problems. The Snakes’ Mike Collins (29th) scored on Vernon’s first powerplay, burying a feed from Cole Ikkala at 13:15.
Pouncing on a rebound from Darrin Robak’s point shot, Short netted his 22nd to give Vernon a 3-1 lead heading into the first intermission.
Said Salmon Arm head coach Matt Hughes: “Our first 20 minutes was awful and that was the hockey game. In the third, we gave up a few more chances because we were pressing to score, but in the first, you can’t show up like that. You can’t let Vernon skate around and move the puck around and not be physical.”
SilverBack d-man Jayson Reardon, playing his first game back since suffering a strained MCL, agreed.
“They’re a strong team and everybody knows it and we just gave them way too much respect,” said the Lumby product. “Our first period wasn’t up to par with theirs and they just outplayed us.”
Short notes it has taken a while for Vernon’s forwards to get on the same page since the club made some moves at the January trade deadline, but he believes they have turned the corner.
“We’ve really simplified things – chipping in pucks, making unselfish plays, taking the hit to make plays. Our puck control is at an all-time high right now,” said the Vernon product.
Short adds this might not be the last time Vernon will face the SilverBacks (28-25-3-3).
“These are the guys that we’re going to face maybe in our first round so we definitely wanted to send a message.”
David Robinson (13th) capped the Viper attack, one-timing a gorgeous backdoor feed from Kellen Jones on a powerplay early in the third frame.
Rookie keeper Blake Voth, making his ninth straight start, was sharp when needed to record 24 saves for the win. The Tony Ierfino turned in a respectable 31-save showing for Salmon Arm.
Rookies Pat McGillis and Robak both had solid games for the Vipers, while regulars Dylan Walchuk and Curtis Gedig were healthy scratches. Snakes’ d-man Garrett Noonan collected first star.
SNAKE BITES: Voth, who dropped his goals-against average to 1.78, can set a new BCHL record if he allows fewer than nine goals in Vernon’s two remaining games. The current record holder, Nanaimo’s Simon Nolet, had a GAA of 1.98 in 2004-05…The Vipers also seem certain to set a new record for fewest goals allowed. They’ve surrendered just 114 so far. The record of 137 was set by the Penticton Vees in 2005-06.