Nobody figured it would take until Game 55 for the Vernon Vipers to clinch a B.C. Hockey League playoff spot.
The Royal Bank Cup hosts recruited an ultra-talented team, but the rest of the Interior Conference also iced superb rosters, creating the closest post-season race in decades.
Needing a single digit to make the post-season for the first time in three years, the Vipers brushed back the Salmon Arm SilverBacks 3-2 in overtime before 1,990 fans Friday night at Kal Tire Place.
Vernon, who hosted the Division-leading Penticton Vees Saturday night, and visit the cellar-dwelling Trail Smoke Eaters Wednesday night, should finish a solid third.
Who they face in round 1 is undetermined with the Vees holding a two-point cushion on the second-place West Kelowna Warriors after both teams posted wins Saturday night.
The fourth dance partner will be either the SilverBacks or Merritt Centennials. The Cents lost 5-3 to West Kelowna so went into Saturday’s road date with Salmon Arm four points ahead and the Gorillas holding one game in hand.
Alternate captain Brendan Persley is in his third season with the Snakes but wasn’t bringing up the last two losing years.
“I don’t think the guys are too worried about what happened in the past,” said Persley, who blocked shots and tossed some heavy hits all night.
“We clinched tonight and that’s all that really matters. Now we’re just looking to go forward, end the season strong with three wins and then go into the playoffs on a high note, and just take it from there.”
TJ Dumonceaux banged in a loose puck on a wild scramble just outside the SilverBack crease, with 1:44 left in the first overtime.
D-man Kenny Citron carried the puck deep into the Salmon Arm zone, cut to the net and was denied by goalie Angus Richmond, who came out three feet to challenge for the puck. Citron and Dumonceaux whacked away at the loose puck for a good five seconds.
Earlier, d-man Josh Bryan did a decent Duncan Keith impersonation for the 2-2 equalizer four minutes into the second period. Bryan took a gorgeous pass from Dexter Dancs inside the Gorillas’ zone, made a sweet deke and slid a backhander along the ice into an empty cage. Colton Sparrow also had an assist.
“When the defence score, it’s definitely a big help to the forwards,” smiled Persley, a 20-year-old Kelowna product.
“They kind of relax and kind of just focus on the dee zone and that’s what happened tonight. We were missing our goal scorers tonight and the boys still found a way which is nice.”
The Vipers (29-16-4-6) were missing 55 goals of offence with Demicon Hannoun on injured reserve, Liam Coughlin suspended and leading scorer Michael McNicholas in sick bay with a stomach ailment. The SilverBacks used three affiliates and had 22 goals out of the lineup, but both teams showed enough energy and grit for a pretty entertaining tilt.
“I thought all the guys just kind of pulled together,” said Bryan, an alternate captain who has five goals. “McNicks was supposed to play and then he was out at game time and we had scoring from up and down our lineup and that’s we need going into playoffs. Guys are going to get hurt and it’s nice to know that even with those high goal scorers out, we can still pull off a win.”
Both teams were running on fumes in the third period and overtime, but Bryan said the Vipers were not going to break down.
“You have to think, ‘Twenty more minutes and then we can rest up.’ It’s more than worth it to pull out a win over those guys, rivals all year. We owed them an OT win from last time we were in Salmon Arm so no amount of fatigue can take that fire out of you.”
Bryan and McNicholas were obtained in the deal for Viper all-star Aaron Hadley last winter, showing up for training camp last summer.
“We thought it was going to be a little earlier, on, especially with this roster, but the Interior Conference is really good and really tight,” said Bryan. “We’re there and we’re happy to be there. We’re starting to peak now; that’s four in a row. We’re confident we can beat anyone in the Interior and the league.”
Sparrow nicely finished his 11th of the year on a two-on-one with Logan Mick, shovelling in a rolling puck just inches from Redmond, for Vernon’s first goal, 12:09 into the first period.
Vernon product product Alex Gillies and league-leading pointgetter Landon Smith produced the SilverBack snipes. Gillies pocketed his 26th and almost ended the game but was stoned by Austin Smith in the dying minutes.
“I just fanned on it trying to get it up,” said Gillies, headed to Michigan Tech next fall. “That could have been a game-changer but that’s the way it goes. I thought we had a good game, overall. We needed to do better in the second period when we let them get two goals.”
SilverBacks’ head coach Troy Mick figured the whistle should have gone before Dumonceaux buried the winner, but he was going to wait 24 hours to argue his case with the league, and take the point.
“Obviously, we were up 2-0 and Vernon battled back to make it 2-2 and good on them. They got the point that they needed to make the playoffs and the got the winner.”
Salmon Arm visits the Cents Wednesday night so need a sweep to stand a chance at the playoffs. They also face the Vees in a home and home series so somewhat control their fate.
“Hypothetically,” said Mick. “You gotta get win games to get in and that’s why that call hurts, but again, we got a point in a tough rink against a good hockey team so we gotta take it all positive and get ready for tomorrow night”
SNAKE BITES: The Vipers went with 10 veteran forwards and used North Okanagan Knights affiliate Blaine Caton sparingly…Thomas Plese of the SilverBacks rung a shot off the crossbar and seconds later, picked off a Mick backhand at the point and lost control of the puck on a breakaway five minutes into the second period…Mick took a gorgeous stretch pass from D Riley Guenther and was stopped by Redmond on his own second-period breakaway…Guenther fought Jack Berezan in a non-eventful scrap midway through the third…Michael Statchuk, who has played every position but net this season, was awarded the Wayne Buck Memorial Award for hard work and unselfish play. Bucky’s widow, Sharon, picked the winner. Wayne, a former Viper public address announcer, died in 2009…Brett Mennear’s third-period goal was the Warriors’ winner over the Centennials. Adam Tracey and Sam Johnson scored for Merritt to get them back within one but Adam Osczevski got insurance with just under four minutes left.Andy Desautels made 41 saves for the win… Brett Beauvais scored twice in the third period to key a come-from-behind 4-2 win for the Vees over the visiting Smokies Scott Davidson and Jesse Knowler scored 1:35 apart in the middle frame to put the Smokies up two going into the third.