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Vipers crank up defence for win
The amusement ride known as Junior hockey took a terrific turn for the Vernon Vipers Wednesday night at Kal Tire Place.
Sitting in the Interior Conference cellar with one victory and fans already calling for a coaching change, the Vipers cranked things up and stopped the Penticton Vees 3-1 before 1,200 fans.
It was Vernon’s strongest 200-foot performance of the young B.C. Hockey League season as they improved to 2-2-1-2 and moved into a share of third place with the Trail Smoke Eaters (3-3).
Newbie Riley Guenther showed moxy on the battered blueline, the Vipers were tougher in the 50-50 battles, reduced their turnovers and got splendid goaltending from Austin Smith.
All of the above converted in a much-needed two points as the Vipers begin a home and home series with the defending champion Surrey Eagles tonight on the coast. Surrey visits the Big Wheel Saturday night.
Forward Demico Hannoun, who has struggled in stretches, parlayed his finest showing of the year into second star. Two days after being listed by NHL Central Scouting, the North Delta product pocketed two assists and tossed some heavy hits.
“I’m not really too focussed on the draft right now,” said Hannoun, who was part of the Adam Tambellini blockbuster last winter.
“I’m just more worried about winning games. Everyone played really well tonight. We talked about sticking to our systems and everything should work. That was our best defensive game because we were getting pucks out simply and supporting everyone.”
The Vipers signed Guenther – 83 Western League games – after trading towering Spencer Morse to the West Kelowna Warriors for futures. Guenther is a highly reliable minute muncher who handles the puck and skates well.
“He’s really good,” said Hannoun of the 19-year--old Guenther. “He’s got good awareness out there. He’s good moving the puck up and down the ice.”
Guenther’s arrival means 20-year-old d-men Ryan Renz and Josh Bryan can forget about rushing back from injured reserve. Their absence was a wash since the Vees were without NHL-rated Jack Ramsey (at USA prospects) and 6-foot-6 Michigan giant Blake Butzow (meningitis) on the back end.
“I wasn’t happy with our dee core; they didn’t play up to par tonight so it’s back to the drawing board tomorrow,” said Penticton head coach Fred Harbinson
“We clearly weren’t good enough. We had a team that was probably on life support and we gave them a lot of life tonight.”
Brendan Persley, with his first of the season, defenceman Mark Hamilton (his second) and ex-Vee Dexter Dancs, with his fourth of the year, and the goal of the night, handled the offence as Vernon won their first game on home ice.
The Vees’ Max Coatta wired a wrister from the high slot, roof daddy, to make it 1-1 with 35 seconds left in the second period. Coatta, a Minnesota rookie, leads Penticton with six goals.
Persley converted a two-on-one with Guenther late in the first period after some tight checking at both ends.
Hamilton’s wrist shot from the left point deflected off a Vee and past goalie Hunter Miska for the winner midway through the third period. Hannoun and Mason Blacklock drew assists.
Dancs took a drop pass from Hannoun just inside the Penticton blueline, skated to the outside, cut around a d-man and patiently waited for Miska to make a move before hitting the empty net, with 5:46 remaining. Logan Mick and Hannoun tossed the biggest Viper checks on the night with Hannoun rocking rookie d-man Jarod Hilderman in the left corner with 2:18 to play.
Viper Liam Coughlin jerseyed Patrick Sexton in the night’s only scrap, early in the third period.
Hamilton, a Boston recruit, earned first star. He and the rest of the blueline brigade were solid.
“All week, we’ve been preaching just be tough on those guys and the biggest thing was we were physical the whole game,” said Hamilton. “We were sticking with our guys and we worked the system really well.”
Hamilton was also high on Guenther.
“He helped out a lot tonight. He plays with an edge and he also chips in offensively. He had a nice assist and played really well.”
On Hannoun, Hamilton added: “He played a great game too. His game’s usually offensive, but he chipped in defensively too.”
The highly-skilled Coatta, one of five Vees without a college scholarship, was being positive about losing round one of the heated rivalry.
“It’s disappointing. You never wanna lose two in a row. We obviously never played our best tonight but the great thing about it is we get to come back on Friday and get things turned around in a hurry.”
The Vees are rated 17th in the Canadian Junior A Hockey League. Harbinson will take 4-2 as he tries to determine the Vees’ identity.
“It’s still early. It’s work in progress. There was a lot of things that we liked about this team. You lose two in a row and a couple of guys are gonna to have to realize that Junior hockey is a long haul. I think there was a little bit of backs being patted a little bit too much in town when we started 4-0. The nice thing is we had six in a row on the road and we’re 4-2 and we gotta be happy. I would have taken that at the beginning of the year. Now, we finally get a couple of home games under our belt.”
Guenther, who played volleyball, hoops and lacrosse before dedicating time to hockey, was courted by a few other Junior A teams but Vernon was a clear favourite. The Raiders released Guenther to make room for younger d-men.
“Vernon is a really nice city and they have a good organization,” he said. “They’ve won six national championships and that’s no accident. They’re hosting the Royal Bank Cup so it was a pretty easy choice for me.”
Guenther, a serious fan of the Kings’ Drew Doughty and the Oilers, met former Viper captain Brett Corkey at a Calgary gym and Corkey gave Vernon a five-star rating.
SNAKE BITES: Both teams summoned one player from the Major Midget Okanagan Rockets. The Vipers gave 17-year-old smooth-skating D Gen Bryshun regular shifts in the opening 40 minutes, while the Vees used 15-year-old F Tyson Jost on their fourth line...Guenther’s 22-year-old sister, Chesa, works for Hockey Canada in Calgary in the human resources department...The Crescent Point Energy Western Canada Cup opens April 26 in Dauphin, Man. with the Manitoba and Saskatchewan champions meeting. Top-two teams advance to the RBC, May 10-18...Penticton’s home opener is tonight against the Merritt Centennials.