Popgun. Water Pistol. Call the goal-challenged Vernon Vipers’ attack whatever you want, but it finally came alive in a 4-0 win over the Trail Smoke Eaters Wednesday night at Kal Tire Place.
Captain Jagger Williamson, a fifth-year centre and the pulse of the Vipers, came off injured reserved and scored twice and set up another as the Vipers jumped from last place in the B.C. Hockey League Interior Division into a four-way share of fourth place. Vernon (5-5-3) is two points back of the third-place Penticton Vees and four behind the second-place Smokies.
The Vipers had the second-worst offence going into the tilt before 1,635 fans who showed up rather than watch Survivor, the baseball playoffs or the Whitecaps on TV. Vernon’s Tyler Wright, who is Director of Amateur Scouting for the Detroit Red Wings, was in attendance with Detroit amateur scouts Jeff Finley (Kelowna) and Marty Stein. (Vernon).
“It was fun to be out on the ice again with the guys,” beamed Williamson, named the first star. “I don’t think about my goals much, but it was in the back of my mind of course, and it was nice to get that first one of the season. We just gotta keep it going and have fun.”
The Vipers started the game without five regulars due to illness, injuries and suspension and then lost first-line winger Sebastien Streu with an injury early in the first period. Head coach Mark Ferner rolled three lines and his six healthy d-men were spectacular, rarely causing a turnover.
“We had a short bench but we practise really hard and Mark (Ferner) really knows how to get us conditioned,” said second-year Viper winger Connor Marritt, who worked a gorgeous back-door Williamson’s second goal which made it 4-0 at 14:56 of the second period. “It was no longer than 45 seconds and get it out and get it in kind of thing.”
Said Williamson on the play with Marritt: “It was pretty funny; we were both trying to get that puck. I was trying to go back-door to him and I guess he was going back-door to me and it worked out.”
Marritt skated major miles all night and was named the third star.
Minnesota product Ben Helgeson converted his first BCHL snipe at 12:39 of the opening 20, when he beat Smokie goalie Adam Marcoux with a mid-level wrister from 12 feet after Teddy Wooding’s shot was stopped. Coleton Bilodeau showed extreme patience by carrying the puck to the net before pushing it back to Helgeson. Elan Bar Lev-Wise drew the secondary assist. The goal came three minutes after Viper winger Jesse Lansdell struck the right post.
Just three minutes later, Williamson drilled a low shot past Marcoux with d-man Brenden Kim and Nick Cherkowski earning helpers.
Lansdell netted the goal of the night with 15 seconds left in the period when he one-timed a gorgeous cross-ice feed from Williamson. D-man Jack Judson started the play by reversing into his own zone, taking a few strides and hitting Williamson with a beauty pass. The power play goal came 65 seconds into Trail blueliner Jeremy Smith’s clipping penalty.
Smith went old school in the tight-checking second period when he tossed a Tim Horton hip check on Wooding, who was trying to dance around him inside the Trail zone.
Vernon d-man Carver Watson hit the crossbar with a wrister from the left point early in the same period.
Williamson, a Michigan Tech commit, shot high and wide going for his hat trick when Smith gift wrapped him a pass in front of reliever Tanner Marshall on a penalty kill early in the final frame.
Max Palaga, a former Kamloops Blazer, recorded 27 saves for his first BCHL win and shutout to take the second star. His best stop came off Smokie sniper Mack Byers on his doorstep after a giveaway a minute after Williamson just missed.
“It was awesome,” beamed Palaga. “I’ve only been here a couple of weeks but I’ve never seen a group of guys play so well in front of me. Sure, I got the shutout but it they made it easier than it could have been.”
The 6-foot-1, 175-pounder loves the parity in the Interior Division.
“You lose a game, you might be in last, but you win the next game and you’d be back in first; it’s awesome,” he said. “I love the tight games.”
Trail rearguard Kyle Chernenkoff tossed the heaviest hit of the night when he rocked Helgeson deep in the Vernon zone with 58 seconds to play.
“It was tough,” said Trail captain Braeden Tuck, who leads the Smokies with 7+7 and just signed an NCAA Division 1 scholarship with the Sacred Heart Pioneers in Fairfield, Conn. “We would have liked to have had a better start. We knew it was a tough building to come into; we talked about it. We need to look in the mirror and see what we need to do better. We showed signs of life at some points, but we need to learn to do that for 60 minutes.”
Tuck says the level playing field on the Interior table gives teams extra motivation with each game.
“It’s good; it keeps you honest,” said Tuck, a Calgary 20-year-old. “I’d rather have that than have a team from November isn’t going to make the playoffs, or is going to finish first.”
Vernon’s Trey Taylor, who made a clutch shot block with the Smokies pressing to break the shutout, was the Fortis Energy Player of the Game.
The Merritt Centennials blanked the Salmon Arm Silverbacks 5-0 to pad their first-place lead at 10-6.
Vernon hosts the Alberni Valley Bulldogs Saturday night and visits the Silverbacks in a Sunday matinee. The Smokies entertain the defending Royal Bank Cup champion Chilliwack Chiefs Friday night.