They have until Tuesday, March 8 to tweak their ineffective powerplay, knock some video-game heads in Call of Duty and catch up on Facebook.
Then, the Vernon Vipers can get serious and begin the B.C. Hockey League playoffs. They are, believe it or not, after losing a dozen regulars, just 16 wins away from a third straight berth in the national Royal Bank Cup.
However, the Fred Page Cup comes first and after an 85-point season which saw the Snakes allow a paltry 2.40 goals a game against – second overall behind the Powell River Kings – Vernon will enjoy the 15-day break before thinking about the post-season.
The Vipers ended the regular season with a sleepy Sunday matinee 3-0 victory over the Quesnel Millionaires before 2,400 fans at Wesbild Centre.
With their third straight Ryan Hadfield Memorial Trophy as conference champions comes a first-round bye. If all three favourites win their series, the Vipers will meet the Westside Warriors, who averaged a league-high 4.10 goals a game.
Dylan Walchuk, who drew two assists against the seventh-place Mills, says the Vipers weren’t taking Quesnel lightly. Vernon outshot the Mills 46-19 and missed a dozen glorious scoring chances. It was pretty much river hockey with Viper d-man Ryan Renz taking the game’s only penalty, for hooking.
“I think it was big for us to come into this game and not step back and just kind of play like it was playoffs so we get on a roll before playoffs start here,” said Walchuk, whose team-high 56 points (24 goals, 32 assists) is second lowest in franchise history behind Jason Williamson’s 50 in the 2000-01 season when Vernon missed the playoffs.
David Robinson fired his ninth game-winner and 32nd goal of the year, on a hard rush to the net, Patrick McGillis buried a rebound in the slot and Bryce Kakoske went roof daddy, with 2:31 left, for Vernon’s offence.
Mills’ rookie goalie Adam Harris was brilliant at times as the Vipers drove the net all afternoon. Walchuk said the Vipers made Harris look good on some plays, while getting stoned on others.
“It was a little bit of both. I know I should have had at least two or three and he made a couple of good saves on me so congrats to him. He played solid for them.”
Power forward Michael Zalewski, who missed his 14th straight game with a concussion, will hopefully be back for the playoffs since the Vipers, who have lacked finish all year, need another bonafide sniper for post-season glory.
“I think we can use the break,” said Walchuk. “We have a few guys sick and I think it’s a huge advantage, actually. It will just give us extra gas for the playoffs. It’ll pay off in the third, fourth round as we go deeper.”
Vipers’ veteran d-man Stevie Weinstein was quick to support the first-round bye.
“I think, obviously, it’s worked the last few years and we’ve got some guys injured, banged up and sick so it will give us a lot of time for those guys to get healed.”
Weinstein says the break will especially boost the Vipers in the early rounds when they tangle with teams who have already been to war once.
The Vipers, who had just two players with 20-plus goals, went to overtime a league-high 20 times which has Hot Stove Leaguers wondering if their lack of depth up front will betray them in the playoffs.
“We have the lowest goals against in our Conference and a lot of people doubted us at the beginning of the year but we just stuck to the system and we got it done,” said Weinstein.
The seriously goal-challenged Millionaires, who earned just 13 wins yet made the playoffs, where they face the Penticton Vees in round one, only had two or three real scoring chances on their former net detective Kirby Halcrow on Sunday.
“Obviously, we wanted to get a good jump into the playoffs and we would have liked to get a win here,” said Mills’ classy captain Skyler Smutek of Seattle. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do that. It’s pretty light in the dressing room right now. We’re excited for the playoffs. We felt we worked hard all year and totally deserve to be there. Our focus is next week on our next opponent.”
Smutek, who smiled when reminded about how the Mills and Halcrow pushed the Vipers to six games in round two last year, likes Vernon’s chances this year.
“They stole him (Halcrow) from us so that’s one thing. Obviously, they’re not as potent on offence but they’re still a great team and it’s still real hard to play against them. Even when you make mistakes, now they’ve got Halcrow sitting back there to help them out so it makes them that much better.”
SNAKE BITES: Mills’ G Byrton Udy, obtained in the Halcrow trade, sat out with a concussion he suffered Friday night in Westside when the Mills lost 6-0…D Stefan Gonzales of the Mills required 11 stitches to repair a wound near his mouth after a puck came up off a stick in front of the Mills’ net, in the third period…The Vipers finished second overall, followed by the Vees and Salmon Arm SilverBacks, 10-5 losers Sunday in Coquitlam…The Spruce Grove Saints of the Alberta league finished as the No. 1 team in the CJAHL, at 48-8-0-4. The Kings are ranked second and the Vipers ninth. Merritt Centennials’ G Tyler Steel, of Vernon, has been added to the WHL Calgary Hitmen 50-man protected list. Steel went 7-16 with a 3.49 GAA as a rookie.