DAUPHIN, MAN. – Good, better, best. That was the natural progression of the Vernon Vipers’ play at the Royal Bank Cup this week in Manitoba, culminating in an 8-1 drubbing of the host Dauphin Kings in the championship game Sunday afternoon at Credit Union Place.
The Vipers are the first team to repeat as national junior A hockey champions since the Vernon Lakers accomplished the feat in 1990 and ’91.
“They should be proud of themselves, and the fans of Vernon should be very proud of these kids because it wasn’t easy. They’ve had a target on their back all year and they just kept getting better and better as the year went on,” said Vipers’ head coach Mark Ferner, piloting his club to it’s second title in just three years behind the bench.
With the Kings having to grind out a win over the physical La Ronge Ice Wolves in the late semifinal Saturday night (Vernon stopped the Brockville Braves 2-0 in the afternoon semi), Ferner suspected there might be an opportunity to take advantage of a tired opponent.
“That’s why we wanted to push the pace real early and just make sure we get a good jump in this hockey game. And our guys responded,” he said.
The Vipers took advantage of a lethargic looking Kings squad from the outset, controlling the play and keeping the Dauphin defenders on their heels with a blinding forecheck. Cory Kane, using a defenceman as a screen, pegged Vernon to a 1-0 lead with a quick blast from the the high slot at 14:28 of the first period.
Rookie Dylan Walchuck’s winner at 6:28 of the second period marked the start of a three-goal spree over a 48-second span that the Kings never recovered from. A pair of carbon-copy goals just nine seconds apart by Vernon Game MVP Kellen Jones and Cole Ikkala had the Kings reeling, and the home crowd stunned.
Said Kings’ captain Steven Shamanski: “They’re a skilled team and they really put the pressure on us. They buried a couple quick ones on us and we just got behind the eight-ball and it was tough to come back against a skilled team like that.”
Bryce Lamb pocketed the Kings’ lone goal midway through the second period, but the Vipers fired four unanswered goals to seal the win before 2,260 fans.
Patrick McGillis, Sahir Gill, Jones and Garrett Noonan, with a rocket from the face-off circle, completed the Vernon assault.
Netminder Graeme Gordon recorded 23 saves for the win, his best when he slid cross-crease to deny sniper Shane Luke on an odd-man rush early in the second period.
“I can’t wait to celebrate with the boys, it’s been an unreal two seasons,” said Gordon. “I gotta thank Ferns for bringing me here and I gotta thank Duncan (Wray, Vipers’ owner) and the staff. Repeat champions, that’s the best way to close it out, I don’t know what more to say.”
Joe Caligiuri faced 36 shots, but didn’t get a lot of help as his team got caught pinching, turned over the puck a lot in the neutral zone and allowed countless odd-man rushes.
The Snakes fell 6-5 in overtime to the ANAVET Cup champion Kings to open the tournament more than a week ago, but their play and their confidence steadily progressed throughout the week.
“We got better as the tournament went on,” said Ferner. “We didn’t start the way we wanted to, but that’s fine. We got ourselves in the semifinal game, and that last game against Brockville (Braves) in the round-robin we were good and we just built on that.”
The loss was Dauphin’s first in 21 home playoff games, and Vipers’ captain Kevin Kraus was happy to be the one to deliver it.
“We came to this tournament and all we heard was Dauphin wanted a team that would challenge them, and we did that in both games,” said the bearded veteran.
“We had some rough games in the beginning of the tournament, losing some leads, but we weren’t going to let that happen with the championship on the line.”
Dauphin head coach Marlin Murray accepted responsibility for choosing the late semifinal slot (round-robin winner gets to choose), as it may have been a factor in his team’s inability to keep up with the speedy Vipers.
“If you need to point fingers, point fingers at me for making that decision. I will take full responsibility for it,” said Murray.
Gracious in defeat, he added Vernon deserves full credit for the win.
“You gotta give the Vernon Vipers a ton of credit. They’ve got a helluva team, coached very well.
“It ended up a bit of wash, but earlier on we had chances to score… two real good opportunities by Shamanski and Shane Luke that we just didn’t bury the puck.”
Once the initial sting is gone, Murray says his club will have a lot to be proud of.
“Overall a real successful season. I’m really proud of the guys, it’s been one of my best seasons to be part of a hockey club, playing or coaching.”