Whether it’s a regular-season tilt in October or a Game 7 Conference final in April, the Vernon Vipers and Penticton Vees bring out the best in one another. Been the case for decades.
The longtime B.C. Hockey League rivals went toe-to-toe in a Thanksgiving weekend twinbill and once again, the fans were grateful for witnessing Junior A hockey at its finest.
Round 1 went to the Vees in a 3-2 win Friday night at the South Okanagan Events Centre. Round 2 was a wash as the Vipers and Vees skated to a 2-2 double overtime tie before 2,421 fans Saturday night at Kal Tire Place.
The teams play four more times before an expected Interior final playoff series, although the Wenatchee Wild and Trail Smoke Eaters may have something to say about that annual match-up. The Vees are ranked No. 1, the Vipers No. 12 in the Canadian League listings.
For Penticton goalie Adam Scheel, an 18-year-old Ohio product, his first impression of the Battle of the Okanagan was a blast. The Chicago Blackhawks fan who likes to make himself big in the crease, earned second star with 38 saves, many off Grade A scoring chances.
“Our bench was short tonight so it was a grind coming in here,” said Scheel, a former baseball shortstop/pitcher who also played some soccer and football. “We were banged up from last (Friday) night but the guys came together and played a good game. I saw most of the shots and the guys really helped me; we got a lot of big blocks.”
Keyvan Mohktari of the Vipers forced overtime on a quick shot from the right side under Scheel’s glove with 6:10 left in regulation. Tanner Wishnowski fed Mohktari on a bang-bang play. It was Mohktari’s third snipe of the season. Mokhtari was chosen Fortis Energy Player of the Game.
Defenceman Nicky Leivermann (second of season) and Grant Cruickshank (second) registered powerplay goals six minutes apart in the second period for the Vees, who improved to 6-0-0-1. First star Niko Karamanis responded for Vernon with his fourth of the season on a powerplay with 72 seconds remaining in the second period. The Vipers are 7-2-0-2.
“We got down a couple of goals early but we’ve got a resilient team here,” said Mohktari, 19, of Burnaby. “We’ve got a lot of skill, a lot of depth. We were never in doubt that were going to come back and tie the game. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the win tonight but it was a good group effort and we can’t be mad about that performance.”
Mohktari, in his first season with Vernon after being obtained in a trade with the Victoria Grizzlies, also enjoyed his first Vipers-Vees showdown.
“I’m just coming into it, but I know the history. Obviously, you always want to beat Penticton and they’re always favoured to win, but I think this year, we’ve got the team to take them down.”
Mohktari, who figured the Vipers’ excellent conditioning was a difference in the final period and overtime, gave major props to Wishnowski, a former Kelowna Rocket, for a sweet dish on the equalizer.
“That was a good play by Wish on the 2-on-1. I knew he was going to get the puck over to me and I just had to be ready to snap it. I got lucky and it went in.”
Karamanis, 19, of Courtenay, had perhaps his finest game as a Viper, in his second season. He pretty much skated through a gauntlet or battle drill down the left flank before firing a cross-ice, back-door pass to Connor Marritt for a fabulous chance, in the second period.
“It was great to come back and get a point,” said Karamanis, who also converted Friday night. “We would have liked two points, especially scoring on the powerplay, but it was definitely a great effort by us. There’s definitely a pretty intense rivalry right off the bat. We know there’s history so I’m really proud of the effort by all the guys.”
The Vipers, who visit Wenatchee Wednesday night and host the Nanaimo Clippers Friday night, are like the Vees, a track meet on skates with everybody earning their post-game shower.
“Hard work is our backbone, but we probably have one of the fastest forward groups in the league and defencemen who will move the puck and shut it down when need to, and two goalies who backstop us. The goals come then they come and theyre always nice I have to focus on how to prepare for each game and I do feel more comfortable going through the league a second time around.”
Leievermann, a 19-year-old rookie blueliner out of Eden Prairie, Minn. with a scholarship locked up with Notre Dame, also loved every minute of the weekend.
“I heard from the boys and coaches saying it was going to be a tough battle with them (Vipers) and clearly, it was,” said Leivermann, who was penalized for high sticking 52 seconds into the second overtime session. “In the first game, they had a chance to tie it up and it was an iffy call at the end and it was double overtime tonight. These were fun games to play.”
Leivermann’s powerplay snipe seemed to take forever as he carried the puck from one side of the ice to another before shooting blindly with goalie Ty Taylor, named third star, out of position.
“I just got it at the point and I tried to deke one guy and I actually lost it and just kicked it back to myself. I didn’t look at the net and it went in. I had absolutely no idea the goalie was out. I got lucky. I was trying to put it high in case he was in the net and almost missed.”
Leivermann, who played attack in field lacrosse, feels the Vees will have to amp up their game as they prepare for the Grizzlies and Merritt Centennials next weekend.
“We have intensity and grit which each team needs to have in this league, and we have to build it on every game.”
Scheel, a North Dakota commit who marvels at Ryan Miller, says the Vees’ identity has already been established.
“We’re consistent in everything we do. Whether we’re up a goal, down a goal, up two, we always play the same and we’re always chipping away at being consistent.”
The Vipers, who were playing their first home game in 28 days, got 26 saves from Taylor.
Penticton’s Massimo Rizzo was stoned by Taylor on a penalty shot early in the third period. Rizzo neatly deked Taylor but left the puck on the goal-line to the right side.
In other league action Saturday, it was: Trail 6 Alberni Valley 2; West Kelowna 4 Salmon Arm 1; Powell River 4 Wenatchee 2; Langley 3 Coquitlam 2; Prince George 4 Surrey 3; Victoria 3 Nanaimo 2. In Sunday play, Wenatchee edged Cowichan Valley 4-3 in OT, while Chilliwack shaded Trail 4-3.