Despite having their unbeaten streak close at eight games, the Vernon Vipers rated an honourable mention in the Canadian Junior A Hockey League rankings released Monday.
The Trail Smoke Eaters, who are first overall and one point ahead of the Vipers in the 17-team B.C. Hockey League, are No. 15. The Thief River Norskies of Minnesota, who are 17-0 in the Superior International League, are No. 1.
The Snakes lost 4-1 to the Penticton Vees before 2,187 fans Saturday night at Kal Tire Place. Vernon entertains the West Kelowna Warriors tonight before visiting the Merritt Centennials Friday and the Wenatchee Wild next Wednesday.
It was the first victory in November for the Vees. Both teams were missing several regulars due to injuries and the World Under 17 Hockey Challenge, and while there were a few heavy hits, the intensity normally shown was somewhat lacking. Penticton and Vernon tied 2-2 Friday night for the second time this season. The Vees edged the Vipers 3-2 earlier in the schedule.
Captain Jagger Williamson liked the way the Vipers played in the home-and-home series.
“Obviously, we were shorthanded and everybody was getting lots of ice but I thought we played well tonight,” said Williamson, a 19-year-old Vernon product. “We were on a bit of a streak there and obviously, it’s going to come to an end sometime. Now, we have try to get back on point and get the wheels going, straight forward.”
The three-point Remembrance Day weekend was just what the Vees needed as they reach the one-third section of the season.
“First of all, it was a great weekend for us,” said Penticton captain Grant Cruikshank, when asked to assess Saturday night. “Last night was for sure a building block, especially for what we’ve been going through the past month. Going into this game, we wanted to carry in how we played the last game and that was pay attention to detail and focus on the dee zone. If we do those things, it’s going to translate into offence like it showed tonight.”
Cruikshank said the Vees kept things simple, knowing full well what their opposition was capable of accomplishing.
“They’re always a good team, a skilled, fast and upbeat team and this is a huge rivalry. We have no trouble getting up for these games.”
The 19-year-old Wisconsin winger says the Vees, who only played four games in September, are primed to find their identity as the schedule gets busier.
“It’s time to really dial in the details, assess our group and figure out our roles on the team. This weekend was a huge stepping stone.”
Taylor Ward took first star Saturday with a goal and one assist with his father, Dixon Ward, a former NHLer, in the building, Blueliners Jonny Tychonick, Jordan Henderson and Ryan O’Connell, into an empty net with 79 seconds left, also converted for the Vees.
Henderson beat Viper goalie Anthony Yamnitsky with a high shot from the right point to make it 3-0 Vees late in the second period. The 20-year-old pride of Surrey was playing his second game with the Vees after a three-year career in the Western League.
Ward jumpstarted the offence by deflecting a Nicky Leivermann point shot past Yamnitsky on a late first-period powerplay for his third snipe of the year. Jared Nash earned the secondary helper.
The Vipers enjoyed a couple of decent scoring chances in the opening stanza with Josh Prokop swiping the puck from d-man Kenny Johnson at the Penticton blueline, cruising down the left flank and flipping a backhander on third star Adam Scheel.
Vernon d-man Michael Young rushed the Vees’ net and went backdoor, just missing after a sweet corner feed by Keyvan Mokhtari.
Tychonick upped the Vees’ lead on a powerplay at 16:24 of the second period as he moved to the middle lane and buried a point shot with four seconds remaining in Mokhtari’s tripping penalty. Ward pocketed the assist.
Viper rookie forward levelled Ben Allen into the boards near the Viper bench with the monster hit of the night. Allen got up in a hurry, unhurt.
Vernon towering blueliner Shane Kelly tossed a series of checks along the sidewall by the Penticton bench and seconds later, fooled Scheel from the side of the net for his second of the season with 30 seconds left in the frame. Williamson and Prokop produced assists.
“I was just buzzing down the wall and threw it on net and it was a lucky bounce but sometimes it happens that way, but I’ll take it,” said the soft-spoken 6-foot-5 Kelly, one of the league’s meanest rearguards.
Kelly, who hails from Michigan and turns 20 just 10 days before Christmas, wasn’t totally distraught after the loss.
“I still think we did some pretty good things, but there’s some stuff we need to work on, like keeping our dump-ins away from their goalie because he’s pretty good playing those. The result wasn’t what we wanted but the process was there.”
Mokhtari wheeled down the right sidewall, cut hard to the crease and just missed six minutes into the final 20 minutes. Vernon rookie Connor Marritt fanned on a loose puck which somehow popped into the deep slot with no defenders in sight.
Vipers, Vees play to draw