The B.C. Hockey League Interior Division championship series is going at least six games.
The Vernon Vipers got a pair of empty-net goals from Liam Coughlin as they iced the Penticton Vees 5-2 Wednesday night before 2,207 fans at Kal Tire Place.
The Ryan Hadfield Memorial Trophy best-of-seven final is square at 2-2 with Game 5 going Friday night at the South Okanagan Events Centre, where the Vees took the opening two tilts. The sixth game is Saturday night in Vernon. Game 7, if required, goes Sunday night in Penticton.
Rookie Blaine Caton and defencemen Brandon Egli and Riley Guenther also scored for the Vipers, while Riley Alferd and Cody DePourcq countered for the Vees. Penticton went 0-for-12 on the powerplay combined in the two losses.
Vernon, who finished second in the regular season behind the Interior and BCHL champion Vees, outshot Penticton 32-28. Danny Todoyschuk won his second straight start, while Hunter Miska took the loss.
The Vees went in front at 8:44 of a rather scrambly first period when Riley Alferd beat Todoyschuk five-hole from four feet out. D-man Jarod Hilderman drew the assist.
Caton had a shot by blueliner Kenny Citron ricochet off his skate and past Miska for the equalizer six minutes later. Egli earned the secondary helper.
Egli wired a bomb from the right point, five hole, with 35 seconds remaining in Vees’ captain Patrick Sexton’s slashing penalty, late in the period. Johnny Coughlin fed Egli a clean pass from the left point.
The Vees levelled the score at 3:51 of the second period when DePourcq, parked just to the left of Todosychuk, buried a cross-ice pass from Steen Cooper, D-man Gabe Bast pocketed the other assist.
With 7:19 to play, Guenther moved up and basically took advantage of a garage sale in the Vees’ crease, backhanding a loose puck high into a wide open cage with Miska down and out with numerous other prone bodies. Riley Brandt and Luke Voltin earned assists by taking the puck hard to the net.
The Vees pulled Miska for a sixth attacker, and after Viper super pest Colton McCarthy was assessed a minor and misconduct for a blow to Penticton d-man Mike Lee’s head up against the glass deep in the Vees’ zone, enjoyed a two-man advantage. Guenther retrieved a loose puck near the right sidewall and rifled it off the Penticton end boards. Coughlin raced down ice and tapped in the insurance tally with 48 seconds remaining.
Coughlin recorded a second freebie by converting a shot from centre just 24 seconds later.
Bast slashed Coughlin on the glove and speared Vernon forward TJ Dumonceaux after the second empty-netter, drawing an unsportsmanlike minor.
“That was huge, taking these two at home,” said Egli, a 20-year-old traded to Vernon along with defenceman Mitch Meek from the Victoria Grizzlies early in the season. “The guys are playing as a team and with discipline and when we work hard and play the way our systems work, it’s gonna go our way.”
Egli smiled when asked if the Vees had a hate-on for McCarthy, who received an unsportsmanlike penalty for a loud cheer in Miska’s direction after Egli’s snipe.
“He’s a great player to have on our side. I think we can feed off him so it’s good.”
Cooper, a 19-year-old veteran out of Duncan, says the Vees expect to recover from the double defeats in Vernon.
“The tables are even as it stands right now, but we’re going home,” said Cooper, who has a scholarship to Minnesota-Mankato Mavericks next season. “We’ve been a good team at home all year and we’ve just gotta get our mind-set back on track and get ready for the next game.”
The Vees only lost once to Vernon during the regular season, but Cooper certainly didn’t expect a short playoff series.
“No, we never expected it to be easy. Obviously, Vernon’s a great team. They finished the regular season second behind us so we knew they were gonna put up a good fight. Even after we went up two games to nothing, we knew they were gonna come out strong. It’s what we expected. They outcompeted us in the last two games. We just gotta get back to the intense mentality and take care of business.”
Penticton’s prime-time line of ex-Viper Demico Hannoun, Patrick Newell and rookie phenom Tyson Jost fizzled in both games in Vernon.
Jost, who turned 17 on St. Patrick’s Day and will likely be a high draft pick in the 2016 NHL entry draft, had an-all planet shift with two minutes to play in the second period. The Kelowna product was stoned by Todoyschuk, struck iron and then walked the puck into the crease, where Lee’s shot went off target.
“It was pretty frustating when we came back to the bench,” said Jost. “Things sometimes don’t go your way. I thought our line deserved one there We worked hard and got the puck down low and the bounces didn’t go my way. Hopefully, next game things will change.”
Jost and Viper leading scorer Liam Finlay – who missed Games 3 and 4 with a concussion – were linemates with the major midget Okanagan Rockets last year. Jost feels for his buddy, but is more concerned with getting the Vees back in the series lead.
“I thought we had a good start, but no results to show for it,” said Jost. “Credit to them, they played well. It was a hard battled game and in the end, we could have done more to win, but they deserved to win. We have to come out strong and bounce back hard next game in Penticton.”
Guenther, the Viper captain and one of four skaters who were with Vernon when they stunned the Vees in seven games in last year’s Interior final series, was confident coming home.
“We knew we had to come back here and take care of business in our backyard,” said the 20-year-old from Calgary. “This one was a little more greasier than Game 3, but we were able to pull it out. We’ve got momentum now and we know we had to win one in Penticton so hopefully Game 5 we can go in there and steal one.”
He says you can throw the regular-season stats out on the porch.
“We don’t care about whatever happened in the regular season. It’s a fresh sheet for us and now it’s a best-of-three right down to the wire. We’re lifted up now. We knew we could do it. Hopefully, we can keep riding this into Penticton.”
The game-within-a-game continued at the buzzer as Cooper picked up the puck, a task normally handled by alternate captain Liam Coughlin after a Viper playoff win. The Vipers urged referees Tyler Hawthorne and Ryan LeSage to return the puck for their dressing room shrine. It is now safe and sound inside the room.
“We got the puck back from the ref, but I’m not sure if it’s the right one,” smiled Guenther.
The series winner advances to the league’s unique three-team, round-robin format with the teams seeded based on their regular-season records. The round-robin opens Wednesday, March 25 with the No. 1 seed hosting the second-rated team.
The Nanaimo Clippers (2-1 on the Powell River Kings) and the Chilliwack Chiefs (3-0 on the Prince George Spruce Kings) lead the other Divisional final series.