The Vernon Vipers scored early and often in a Game 3 victory over the Trail Smoke Eaters on Monday at the Cominco Arena.
Game 4 was played Tuesday night, but the score was unavailable to the Trail Times at press time.
Seven different snipers scored for the Vipers in Monday’s contest and goalie Darion Hanson made 34 saves as Vernon humbled the Trail Smoke Eaters at home with a 7-1 victory.
“We knew our start was going to be really, really important for our hockey team, so fortunately for us we got off to one,” said Vernon head coach Mark Ferner. “But that game was a lot closer than the score indicated.”
Trail was able to overcome two-goal deficits against the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in at least two games of the opening playoff series, but the Vipers are a different animal, and Smoke Eater coach Cam Keith knew the Smokies needed to score first and play with a lead if they hoped to derail the Vipers – that didn’t happen.
The Vipers jumped out to an early lead, scoring four times in the first period to go up 4-0. Steven Jandric beat Trail starter Linden Marshall just 62 seconds into the game, and Ryan Brushett slid one short-side past the Trail goalie less than two minutes later to put the Vipers up 2-0.
“Our team is playing really good right now,” said Vipers captain and Trail native Riley Brandt. “Our goalie is hanging in there for us. We’re just coming together as a group, we’re chipping in, doing the right things and it’s working out for us.”
Brandt, a former Smoke Eater, relishes his opportunities to return home to play in front of friends and family, despite an intense physical style that cost him a 10-minute misconduct in the first period, the 20-year-old forward is a skilled player and a pleasant guy off the ice. When asked what it’s like playing in Trail against his friends and cousin Spencer McLean, Brandt was candid.
“Sometimes it’s buddy, buddy, but when it gets down to the nitty gritty we’re all trying to win something out there, so sometimes it’s not a friendly game. At the same time, whatever happens on the ice, off the ice it doesn’t really matter after.”
The Vipers are a team built for playoff hockey with a towering defence, a quick, explosive offence that plays with an edge, is balanced, and can score in bunches, and backstopped by a big-time, big-save goalie that racked up the best numbers in the BCHL in the last half of the season with a 1.85 GAA.
“I don’t pigeonhole kids into roles, I expect everyone to play the same way,” said Ferner. “I expect everyone to play good defence, neutral zone, and I expect everyone to score, I mean we’re dealing with kids anywhere from 16-20 year olds and that’s our expectation where we’re all trying to play a certain style.”
Stillwater, Minn. native Simon Sagissor set up Luke Gingras in the slot, and he wired it glove side at 12:34 to put the Vipers up 3-0 and chase Marshall from the net. Jimmy Lambert then welcomed Zach Dyment to the Smokies’ crease, finishing an efficient cross-crease pass from Jandric with 4:43 remaining in the opening frame to leave the 2,000 Smokies fans searching for answers, as the Vipers outshot the Smokies 9-7 in the period.
“I thought we played well, we came out hard, and we came out to that big lead, which makes it a lot easier to play defence when you’re up 4-0,” said Hanson, a Union commit. “We had a lapse in the second there, but we expected they were going to push hard, and in the third period we shut it down again.”
Trail came out determined in the second, and peppered Hanson on an early power play but came up empty. Smokies defenceman Troy Ring finally beat Hanson midway through the period, when the Vancouver native settled a drop pass from Luke Santerno on the rush and fired it low stick side to cut the lead to 4-1.
The Smokies had a glorious chance to cut the lead in half after Niko Karamanis was sent off for tripping but Hanson slid across and robbed Howarth on a point blank shot, and then denied Spencer McLean in close. Moments later, Karamanis jumped out of the penalty box behind the Smokies defence, and Vipers’ d-man Connor Clouston hit him with a breakaway pass. Karamanis made no mistake, streaking down the left side and pulling Dyment across the crease before slipping it between his pads for a 5-1 Viper lead.
The Smokies outshot Vernon 19-13 in the period, but Hanson stayed calm, cool, and collected throughout the middle frame in repelling the Smokie onslaught.
“At the end of the day, I just try to give my team a chance to win every night,” said the Minnesota native. “Try to be a rock back there, and I feel when a team has confidence in their goaltenders they play much better.”
The Smokies had their share of chances in the third including a Connor Brown-Maloski effort when he split the defence and walked in all alone, went back-hand-forehand then fired a quick shot, but Hanson kicked out the left pad to stymy the Smokie captain.
The Vipers added two more, with Hunter Zandee making it 6-1 and Brett Stapley finished the scoring with 7:46 to play counting his second of the playoffs.
With the Smokies demoralized, Ethan Martini fought back and dropped the gloves with Zandee in an effort to give the Smokies a lift heading into Game 4 on Tuesday.
The Smoke Eaters will need to find a way to shut down the Vernon forwards and beat Hanson if it expects to prolong the series after tonight.
“That’s a good hockey team, and we understand that fourth one is always the hardest to win,” said Ferner. “They’ve got good players, they’re well coached, we have all the respect in the world for them, and we know tomorrow’s going to be a real tough game.”
The win puts the Vipers up 3-0 in the best-of-seven Interior Division semifinals. The puck drop for Game 4 goes Tuesday night at 7 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.
In other action Merritt beat Penticton 5-1 to cut the Vees edge to two games to one, while Powell River beat Victoria 2-1 for a 2-1 series lead.