Mike Van Unen of the Merritt Centennials tries to push Jimmy Lambert of the Vernon Vipers off the puck in BCHL play Wednesday night at Kal Tire Place. (Lisa Mazurek/Morning Star)

Vipers kiss January blues away

Vernon 4 Merritt 1 at Kal Tire Place

Good riddance January. Bring on February in a hurry.

That is pretty much the Vernon Vipers’ motto as they prepare for the B.C. Hockey League stretch run.

The Vipers closed January by registering three powerplay snipes in a textbook 4-1 victory over the Merritt Centennials before 1,675 fans Wednesday night at Kal Tire Place.

It was a difficult month as the perennial powerhouse Junior A franchise first paid last respects to cherished longtime owner Duncan Wray.

They then lost captain Jagger Williamson and roadrunner Keyvan Mohktari with concussions. Rookie phenom Josh Prokop then went down Sunday in Trail and is waiting for season-ending shoulder surgery.

Just to make sure the Vipers hadn’t suffered enough, two men strolled into the team’s dressing room during Wednesday’s game and took off with hundreds of dollars in cash and several watches. Two young Viper fans, whose families billet Vipers, saw the men leaving the dressing room during the second period and got decent photographs of the culprits leaving the scene. Police are investigating the theft.

Prokop, meanwhile, originally hurt the shoulder Nov. 25 in West Kelowna when checked from behind by Warrior defenceman Jake Harrison, who was assessed a boarding major but no suspension. He was feeling some discomfort earlier this month and missed a trip to Prince George to rest the injury which Prokop said would have required surgery at some point even if he didn’t fall in Trail.

“It sucks, obviously, but you just gotta stay positive and just work on what you can do without using your upper body,” said Prokop, who was rated in NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s mid-term rankings. “The rehab’s about five months so I can still skate and work my legs and my core. I just have to take it day-by-day. I’ll be back, I’ll be better.”

Viper alternative captain Brett Stapley, also listed by Central Scouting, said losing Prokop is a huge hit. Prokop, an Edmonton product who turned 18 on Tuesday, compiled 21 goals and 37 points in 48 games. He recorded three hat tricks.

“Proky’s a helluva player,” said Stapley, who scored once against the Cents. “It’s tough to see a teammate go down like that. It’s happened to all of us. I know he will do the rehab and everything he has to do to get better and make his return.”

The January jinx also showed up with 2:15 to play when Cents’ defenceman Jackson Munro buried a slapper from the left point on a powerplay to prevent Vernon goalie Ty Taylor from setting a league-record eighth shutout of the season.

“It’s unlucky we didn’t get that (shutout) for him, but we’ve got eight games to go here and we’ll work our butts off for him,” said Stapley.

Vernon, who finished a woeful 6-5 in January, improved to 32-13-1-4 for 69 points, two more than the Penticton Vees. The host Wenatchee Wild dispatched the Powell River Kings 5-2 before 1,703 fans at the Town Toyota Centre to move within a point of the Vees.

Jimmy Lambert, Jesse Lansdell and Stapley counted man-advantage goals, while Josh Latta also scored for the Vipers.

Lambert was all alone in the crease paint to deflect a Chris Jandric point shot at 18:25 of the opening period for his 18th of the season. D-man Jack Judson earned the secondary assist. Latta converted a shot from the left side after Merritt goalie Jake Berger allowed a rebound off a Cameron Trott wrister from the right sidewall, at 1:13 of the second period. It was Latta’s first as a Viper and eighth of the season.

Lansdell made it 3-0 with 2:49 left in the second stanza, redirecting a Judson shot on the powerplay. Stapley drew the other helper on Lansdell’s 14th.

Stapley completed the Viper offence 17 seconds into a 5-on-3 seven minutes into the third period, whipping in a one-timer from the left side of the net. D-man Michael Ufberg and Trott pocketed assists. Vernon outshot Merritt 38-30.

“We played a full 60 minutes,” said Stapley. “We played simple, we did what we were told and we came out on top. We know for sure when we play the right way, we’re going to get rewarded.”

Cents’ captain Tyrell Buckley said the Cents had four days rest after earning a win and double-overtime loss in Wenatchee so he expected a stronger outing.

“That was a tough one for us,” said Buckley. “Good first period and then the second period cost us. Too big of a hole to come back on in the third.”

Buckley figures the Cents, who are last in the Interior but have 18 wins, can make some noise in the post-season.

“We gotta build this last month and start winning some games against division rivals. I think we have a good team and we just gotta try and play that upset role in the playoffs.”

SNAKE BITES: The Vipers get a week off before hosting the Chilliwack Chiefs Wednesday night… F Elan Bar Lev Wise from Burnaby Winter Club Midget Prep played his fourth game of the season for Vernon, who went with 11 forwards. The 5-foot-10 pounder has rang up 15 goals and 46 points in 26 Midget games. He celebrates his 17th birthday Friday…Derek Brown and Coleton Bilodeau enjoyed Grade A scoring chances in the second period…The Vipers killed off back-to-back penalties early in the second and have the fourth-best PK in the BCHL…The league has suspended Alberni Valley Bulldog winger Tyler Vanuden four games after reviewing video of his check from behind on Williamson Saturday night at Kal Tire Place. Williamson suffered two cuts to his head and immediately went into concussion protocol…Williamson’s Vernon Midget Tier 1 linemate Cole Woodliffe produced 1+1 in the Weyburn Red Wings’ 6-2 loss to the Notre Dame Hounds Tuesday night. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound Woodliffe has eight goals and 29 points in 31 games in the Saskatchewan loop.

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