It was probably a case of a team getting a victory when they really didn't play up to expectations. For the Vernon Vipers, they'll take the win any day knowing full well they were a bit lucky to come out on top. It was a five goal flurry from the Snakes that propelled them to a lead that they would manage to hold on to despite a barrage from the Grizzlies. The first win is so important in this new round robin series as the first team to win three is essentially guaranteed a spot in the BCHL Finals.
The Vipers started the game looking like they had been off for 6 days. Despite travelling down to the provincial capital a day earlier, they just seemed to start flat despite a powerplay to start the game. It was a Grizzly powerplay that would get the scoring started as Jacob Kearley would walk into a howitzer from the left circle to beat Austin Smith and it was 1-0 Grizz. Victoria continued to get shots at the Viper netminder and Smith looked very good in the opening 20. The Vipers had some time in the offensive zone, but didn't generate many shots and found themselves trailing 1-0 after 1.
The message coming into the second was clearly shoot. Vernon only had 3 shots in the first period and quickly changed that. That mentality shift also resulted in a goal as Brett Mulcahy would get his initial pass back and snap a quick shot off the shoulder of Alec Dillon to square the game at 1 just 66 seconds into the second period. A few minutes later a simple shot to the net from Josh Bryan was knocked home by Logan Mick parked in front to make it 2-1 Vernon. As the game approached the midway point the Vipers were awarded a powerplay and after a very pretty passing play Dexter Dancs would score to make it 3-1 Vipes. Just 22 seconds after that TJ Dumonceaux would steal a puck at the Grizzly blue line and find Demico Hannoun wide open in front and he would make no mistake to increase the lead to 4-1. That would end the night for Alec Dillon. He would be replaced by Nic Renyard who faired no better as on the first shot he faced Mason Blacklock took a shot from the right circle, through the legs of the defender and off the far post to make it 5-1 Vipers. Vernon was well in front and essentially capitalized on every break and every bounce. The Grizzlies pushed back in the period, but Austin Smith was great and had a little help from his cross bar who helped him out 3 times during the game.
Knowing full well no lead is safe in this league, Victoria came out flying. There comeback was started on the powerplay as Jesse Schwartz would slide a puck past Smith to make it 5-2. Another man advantage for Victoria saw them score again as Rory McGuire pounced on a loose puck in the slot to make it 5-3. Just over 4 minutes later Victoria found themselves within 1 as Jacob Kearley scored his second of the game as he got a stick on a point shot and it bounced into the net to make it 5-4. The Vipers were clearly reeling and holding on. The Grizzlies threw everything at the net in the final 7 minutes, but a late powerplay for Vernon in the last minute put the game away as the Vipers managed to survive and take the game 5-4.
My 3 Key Thoughts
1) - 5 Goal Flurry - The Vipers had their best period in the second as they scored five goals on 11 shots. It was a tough period for Victoria goaltending as Dillon fought the puck on a few shots. The blame couldn't be put on his shoulders squarely as the Grizzlies were guilty of some turnovers in their own zone that the Vipers made them pay for. It was also great to see a few players get their first goals of the playoffs. Logan Mick, Mason Blacklock and Dexter Dancs all got their first goals and I'm sure they felt the weight of the goose egg come off their backs. The game plan was simple. Shoot the puck and crash the goal and it was extremely successful in the second period.
2) - Goaltending - In this game the battle of the netminders went to Austin Smith who made a number of huge saves when his team needed them. It was contrarily a tough night for Victoria goaltending. Rookie Alec Dillon finished his night with 8 saves on 12 shots, while Renyard fared better stopping 10 of 11. Smith has played every minute of playoff hockey for Vernon this season and seems to be a steadying influence in the blue paint. Nothing flashy, just effective. His play was so impressive it garnered him 3rd star of the evening with 39 saves on 43 shots.
3) - Lady Luck - I don't think anyone would begrudge me for saying the Victoria Grizzlies were a better team on Friday night. With an exception of 13 minutes in the second period, that is. Unfortunately for the Island Division champs, they simply ran out of time. Thanks to their effective powerplay and veteran triplet top line they took it to the Vipers with wave after wave of attacks. The Vipers know they weren't at their best on this night and still were able to come away with a win. I'd expect a much improved and consistent effort on Sunday against Coquitlam.
Next up for the Vipers is game 2 of the round robin against the Coquitlam Express at Kal Tire Place. Note the start time for that game of 5 oclock. You can catch all the action on 107.5 KissFM starting at 4:45 with the pregame show.