It was like last year’s Fred Page Cup never ended.
There are some new faces on the Vernon Vipers’ and Powell River Kings’ rosters to be sure, but they still managed to crank the intensity dial way up to 10, and then someone broke off the knob.
Dylan Walchuk (20th goal) fired the winner at 15:49 of the third period as the second-place Vipers gonged the first-place Kings 3-2 Friday night in a B.C. Hockey League thriller that had more hits than Michael Jackson.
The McBride product, who earned first star, took a feed from linemate Darren Nowick and sniped a top-corner shot over Michael Garteig’s right shoulder from a tight angle on the powerplay, electrifying the 2,600 fans at Wesbild Centre.
The goal came one minute after third star Cohen Adair (20th) had equalized for the Kings (35-7-3-2), who suffered just their seventh regulation loss.
The two clubs have faced one another in the last two Fred Page Cup finals, but on Friday night it was the Vipers who came in as the underdogs.
“For the last two years we have been the hunted, and tonight we were the hunters,” said Vernon head coach Mark Ferner.
“They’re first overall for a reason. They’re big, they’re strong and they’re an experienced team. It was going to be a good test for us.”
It was a physical game from the outset, with the two teams trading hits and finishing checks for the entire 60 minutes. The Kings, one of the more veteran teams in the BCHL with just two 1993-born players (one is their backup goalie), were relentless in trying to establish a physical presence, sometimes double-teaming Viper puck carriers to stifle their offensive flow.
The Snakes (27-9-4-8), who have six ‘93s in the lineup, utilized their speed to challenge Powell River’s towering defence corps and showed a willingness to pay a physical price in order to get in on the forecheck.
Ferner praised his team for persevering.
“I don’t know how many times they banged it off the glass, whether it was their forwards or their dee,” he said.
“They try to frustrate you. They try to get you to do too much with the puck, and for the most part our guys did a real good job of just stuffing it down their throat and getting after it again.”
After a scoreless first period, Dave Robinson (23rd) put Vernon on the board as he drove to the net on the powerplay and fired a shot over Garteig’s shoulder 3:35 into the second period. Viper netminder Kirby Halcrow drew an assist.
The Viper captain said Friday’s win will add that much more confidence to a group that already seems to be coming together at the right time. In particular, he noted it was a great test for Vernon’s rookies.
“We knew we were one of the top teams in the league, and now it’s just a feather in our cap to beat that team,” smiled Robinson.
“They have some guys that have been to the finals against us the last couple years and it was nice to see our younger guys come in and play well tonight against a team like that.”
“There’s very good structure on that team. They come out hard and pound you. We’re gonna have some bumps and bruises.”
Bryce Kakoske (14th), using Kings’ forward Matt Garbowsky as a screen, wired a sneaky toe drag snapshot that beat Garteig (19 saves) clean, putting Vernon up 2-0 early in the third frame.
Powell River responded on the very next shift. Taking advantage of some disorganization in front of the Vipers’ net, Andrew Pettitt (15th) buried his shot past a sprawled Halcrow to pull his team within one.
Pettitt, a Whitehorse native in his third season with the Kings, loved the playoff atmosphere in Wesbild.
“It’s a lot different when you have two of the top teams come together. It’s not the same as playing a bottom-feeder team. It brings the best out of everybody,” he said.
Kings’ head coach Kent Lewis didn’t like his team’s start, but credited Vernon for a well-deserved win.
“I don’t think we brought much intensity until late in the second and into the third, and then Halcrow shut the door pretty good. We were god awful for the first half of the game.”
Halcrow (24 saves), who faced just three shots in the first period, had to be sharp late in the game, making several big stops, including one on Craig Dalrymple in the final minute.
Viper defenceman Malcolm Lyles received a major and a game misconduct for a blow to the head when he ran Adair into the boards from behind in the third period. Lyles will likely receive a two-game suspension, at minimum, for the infraction.
Early in the second period, Vernon defenceman Max Mowat drove Powell River captain Chad Niddery into the end boards. Adair went after Mowat as a result and was lucky to earn only a minor as he delivered a few punches to the Vernon defender as the linesmen dragged them to the ground.
The Vipers entertained the Coquitlam Express (17-19-1-9) Saturday night at Wesbild, and will host the Salmon Arm SilverBacks (28-16-2-0) Tuesday.
The Kings ended their Interior tour Saturday against the Penticton Vees (30-13-2-1), who trail Vernon by three points in the Interior.
Penticton attempted a third-period rally Friday night against the visiting Express, but an empty-netter by Coquitlam’s Garrick Perry resulted in a 5-3 final.
In other Friday night action, captain Alex Grieve collected 2+1 as the Westside Warriors doubled the host SilverBacks 6-3 at the Sunwave Centre.
Former Viper Kyle St. Denis earned second star in his debut with the Victoria Grizzlies, a 2-1 win over the visiting Surrey Eagles at Bear Mountain Arena.
St. Denis played five games with the Snakes in 2005-06 before joining the WHL Kelowna Rockets.