Morning Star Staff
DAUPHIN, MAN. – While the Vernon Vipers are still searching for their A game, it appears a trio of subpar performances have been good enough to earn them a berth in the semifinals of the 40th Royal Bank Cup national junior A hockey championship.
Curtis Gedig fired a pair of goals, including the winner at 13:25 of the second period, as the Vipers survived a third-period collapse to outlast the Oakville Blades of Ontario 5-3 Tuesday afternoon before 925 fans at Credit Union Place.
The 0-3 Blades have a slim mathematical chance of staying in the competition, but the Vipers all but eliminated them from the five-team tournament.
Vernon will look to secure second place as they face the Brockville Braves of Ont. Wednesday (noon PT). Brockville ambushed Oakville 11-2 Sunday. The host Dauphin Kings (2-1) had a chance to lock up first place in the round-robin when the faced the La Ronge Ice Wolves in the Tuesday night game. The round-robin winner gets to choose which semifinal time slot they play in.
Perhaps realizing his team is in a somewhat fragile state, Vipers’ head coach Mark Ferner chose not to reprimand his club for another third-period meltdown.
“I could see our guys squeezing their sticks a little bit. You’d like to think at this time of the season that that’s not going to happen, but they’re kids. I could have went in there (locker room) and gave them the ol’ what for, but it’s too late for that. I have to go the other way and let them know that we haven’t been at our best, and that’s fine.”
Besides, as Ferner notes, there are worse situations to be in.
“We’ve also put ourselves in a situation where we’re two wins away from a national championship.”
Vernon – playing without injured leading scorer Connor Jones for the third straight game – took about half a period to really get going as back-to-back penalties in the first five minutes caused their lines to be out of sync. The Blades hemmed Vernon in their own zone with some solid perimeter work on the powerplay, but only managed to generate four shots in the period.
Once the Vipers settled in, they began working the puck down low and utilizing their pointmen to get shots on Oakville netminder Daniel Savelli (18 saves).
Gedig, a smooth-skating blueliner, opened the scoring (scoresheet credits Sahir Gill) with a point shot that deflected off a Blade defender at 14:32 of the first period. The winner was a little more unique as he banked a hard dump-in off the glass which completely fooled Savelli.
“I shot it in off the glass and the goalie lost it in the seats, I guess, and it just bounced between his legs,” grinned Gedig, who is second in Viper scoring at the RBC with 2+2. “I love the icetime. It’s awesome. I feel the more I play the more I’m in the game.”
Dan Nycholat made it 2-0 less than two minutes after Gedig’s opener, sneaking a point shot through traffic while on the powerplay. Gill (Game MVP) and Jonathan Milhouse earned assists.
Cole Ikkala, with his first of the tournament, put the Vipers in full control early in the second period, but as has been the case with Vernon in this tournament, they struggled to protect the lead. Less than a minute later, the Blades’ Game MVP Josh Ranalli blew by a Viper d-man and ripped a shot on netminder Graeme Gordon, and Michael Ingoldsby pounced on the juicy rebound.
Ranalli was proud of the way his club pushed Vernon to the end, especially after they suffered that embarrassing loss to the Braves.
“We had an off day (against Brockville) and we knew that. We had nothing to lose so we just went out there and played our best and showed that we can play with the best of them,” he said. “That fourth goal kind of took the wind out of our sails, but we got it back. We just worked our butts off.
Added Oakville head coach Jason Nobili: “We’re going to hold our heads high after that performance because we pushed it right to the end, and outside of a few bounces and a few goals that could have gone the other way, we could have walked away with a win.
“We were a little bit apprehensive after that 11-2 game and you could probably see our game today was a bit of a feeling out (process). We certainly refocused in the third and showed a lot of character.”
The Blades made a game of it in the final frame pulling within one on goals by Ryan Murphy and Mark McGowan. Gordon (23 saves) stopped a series of shots from in close before Murphy netted his goal. McGowan, cruising through the slot, chipped a one-timer past the Vernon tender on a slick pass from behind the net from Steven Guzzo.
With Savelli pulled for the extra attacker, the Vipers repelled a solid Oakville forecheck before clearing the puck. Kellen Jones rubbed out a Blade defender in a puck chase, and then spotted Milhouse for an easy empty-net tap-in.
The Vipers realize they’re going to have to buckle down if they’re going to defend their RBC title.
“First period was obviously great, and the start of the second, but with these games coming you have to play a full 60. That’s the only way your’e going to win,” said Gill. “We’ve been letting teams back in the game in the third period, and that’s not how we play and that’s not characteristic of our team.
“I think we started looking too far ahead. I think we just get lazy mentally a little bit and we try to do too much. Before you know it they get a couple goals and you’re on your heels.”