Grizzlies lose heartbreaker in opening game of BCHL semifinals

Victoria defenceman Chris Albertini (left) prepares to glove down a flying puck after a faceoff in the Grizzlies
Victoria defenceman Chris Albertini (left) prepares to glove down a flying puck after a faceoff in the Grizzlies' end during game 1 of the B.C. Hockey League round robin playoff semifinals aginst Vernon at The Q Centre in Colwood. The Grizzlies fought back from a 5-1 deficit in the third period, but lost 5-4 to the Vipers.
— image credit: Don Descoteau/News staff

There were so many places the Victoria Grizzlies could have gotten an extra goal or two against Vernon Vipers on Friday that it was easy to lose count.

The hometown Grizzlies outplayed the visitors for the vast majority of the game at The Q Centre, but came away empty-handed, losing 5-4 after falling behind 5-1 after 40 minutes.

Grizzlies head coach Craig Didmon was disappointed to not come away with two points from a contest in which he says his team "dominated (Vernon) or 50 minutes."

"Good teams find a way to win," he said. He added Vipers goalie Austin Smith thwarted the Grizzlies on four or five golden scoring chances, including a breakaway by Victoria sniper Gerry Fitzgerald with about six minutes left and Vernon clinging to a one-goal lead.

In all, Victoria hit three goalposts and two crossbars and had numerous other opportunities, as they outshot the Vipers 43-23 overall.

The locals took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission on a goal from defenceman Jacob Kearley. But the Vipers grabbed the momentum early in the second, scoring twice in 1:53 to take the lead for good before the period was three minutes old.

Three more Viper goals in a three-minute span – the fourth, by Demico Hannoun, chased Grizzlies started Alec Dillon from the net in place of Nic Renyard – took the air out of the building and left most of the 1,471 fans scratching their heads at the turnaround.

Victoria, seemingly inspired by a late-period elbow in the corner by burly Vernon d-man Ryan Renz on tiny Leo Fitzgerald, who was helped off the ice, came back to life in the third on the ensuing power play.

In fact, they enjoyed a two-man advantage early when Vernon's Dylan Chanter took a tripping penalty. Jessie Schwartz scored to make it 5-2 at the 1:35 mark, then less than five minutes later almost scored shorthanded, when he stole the puck but was stopped on a point blank shot by Smith.

Rory McGuire, from Schwartz and Garrett Forster, made it 5-3 with another power play marker, at 8:04. Then at the 12:12 mark, following a goalmouth scramble that seemed to last an eternity, Kearley banged home his second of the game to cut the lead to one.

With the Grizzlies pressing for the tying goal in the last minute and Renyard pulled for an extra attacker, Victoria blueliner Jaden Schmeisser was assessed a two-minute elbowing penalty that erased the advantage.

Victoria next hits the road to play high-scoring Coquitlam on the mainland next Tuesday. The Vipers and Express play in Vernon on Sunday, then Coquitlam makes the trip to the Island to face the Grizzlies on Thursday (April 3).

The double round-robin will see the top two finishing teams advance to the Fred Page Cup championship finals.

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