Anthony Latina scored 3:28 into sudden-death overtime Tuesday night as the Vernon Vipers clipped the Merritt Centennials 3-2 before 1,260 B.C. Hockey League fans at Kal Tire Place.
Game 2 in the best-of-seven Interior Division semifinal series goes Wednesday night in Vernon with Games 3 and 4 set for Friday and Saturday night at the Nicola Valley Arena in Merritt.
Colton McCarthy and Thomas Aldworth also scored for Vernon, while John Schiavo and Gavin Gould, with the 2-2 equalizer with 1:58 remaining, countered for Merritt.
Viper starter Danny Todosychuk was marvellous before leaving the game with an injury with 2:23 to play. Gould levelled the score 25 seconds after Todosychuk was replaced by Jarrod Schamerhorn.
Vernon leading scorer Liam Finlay stripped Merritt defenceman Jake Clifford of the puck in the right corner and fed Latina in the high slot. Latina went top cheddar on Jonah Imoo, who matched Todosychuk with a stellar showing. The Vipers outshot the Cents 39-37.
The second-place Vipers went in front at 17:12 of the first period when big centre Colton McCarthy neatly deflected in a shot by Latina just a dozen seconds after Brandon Duhaine began serving a penalty for high sticking. D-man Brandon Egli drew the secondary assist.
Merritt responded 14 seconds later when Schiavo finished a bang-bang play with blue liner Josh Teves right in front of the Viper net. Schiavo led the third-place Cents with 30 goals this season.
Vernon moved ahead 2-1 with 4:05 to play in the second period when Thomas Aldworth one-handed a rebound past Imoo from the doorstep. Imoo had made a save on a wrister from the right side by d-man Mitch Meek. TJ Dumonceaux also earned an assist.
Gould forced the extra session when his wrister from in tight appeared to ricochet in off a Viper body in front after Schamerhorn blocked Gould’s initial shot. Teves was awarded the assist.
Both teams enjoyed a handful of excellent scoring chances on the night with Liam Coughlin of the Vipers missing a couple of Grade A opportunities, one on a 2-on-1 with Aldworth. Dumonceaux blocked a shot and was stopped by Imoo on a shorthanded breakaway with 7:15 remaining.
Todosychuk appeared to tweak his leg after Griffyn Martin of the Cents fell on him during a third-period scramble. Viper disturbance specialist Riley Brandt took about 20 steps and drove Martin through the net seconds later. Todosychuk made a leg save a few minutes later and was in obvious pain. The popular net detective slammed his stick in disappointment as he left the ice.
“Danny’s a competitor and he obviously didn’t want to leave the game,” said Viper assistant coach Eric Godard, on the KISS-FM post-game show. “It was tough for him, but it was the right call.”
Brandt had earlier in the same period ambushed Merritt d-man Cole Arcuri deep in the Cents’ zone for the hit of the night, drawing a huge applause.
Vernon, playing without their top defenceman Luke Shiplo (concussion), almost won early in OT when Linden Hora’s quick shot from the high slot was snagged by Imoo. The Vipers got offence from their top three lines, while Hora, Mackenzie Bauer and Blaine Caton recorded several strong energy shifts.
Forwards Nicholas Rasovic and Michael Roberts were healthy scratches for the Vipers.
Meanwhile, Jason Cotton scored at 5:39 of double overtime as the West Kelowna Warriors stunned the Interior banner-winning Penticton Vees 4-3 before 1,500 fans at the South Okanagan Events Centre.
In other series openers, the Nanaimo Clippers grounded the Alberni Valley Bulldogs 6-1, the Prince George Spruce Kings shaded the Langley Rivermen 1-0, the Chilliwack Chiefs upended the Coquitlam Express 4-1 and the Powell River Kings gonged the Victoria Grizzlies 7-2.