The Trail Smoke Eaters couldn’t climb out of a 3-0 pit the Vernon Vipers dug for them in the first minute of play on Wednesday at the Cominco Arena falling to the snakes 7-3 in BCHL action.
The Vipers struck for three goals in a span of 56 seconds, giving the Smoke Eaters’ AP goalie Kai McDonald a venomous welcome to the BCHL.
The Smokies backup Dustin Nikkel would come in and settle the team down, but Vernon’s Jared Wilson would net the winning goal with a rocket from the slot for his second of the night at 12:14 of the second period to put the Vipers up 4-1.
It was a demoralizing start to the game for the Smoke Eaters who have not won in 10 games.
““We have a few APs but that’s not an excuse, it’s the guys in our room that need to motivate themselves to show up to the rink,” said assistant coach Craig Clair. “You find out in this league in a hurry, that one minute can put you behind, and will finish the game if you’re not willing to show up and pay the price, and we got that lesson tonight.”
The Viper’s Wilson opened the scoring 20 seconds in when he wristed a shot over the shoulder of McDonald, and 18 seconds later Dexter Dancs would bat in a bouncing puck off a scramble to make it 2-0. Another 18 seconds later Colton Sparrow would make it 3-0 with a high shot that would send McDonald to the bench in favour of Nikkel.
AP Colby Livingstone would get the Smoke Eaters on the board at 9:27 of the first when he banged in a behind-the-net pass from Jake Lucchini to make it 3-1.
The Vipers were relentless in their attack with numerous odd-man rushes and breakaways that could have resulted in a much worse outcome had it not been for some great saves from Nikkel. After Wilson made it 4-1, Dancs would score his second of the night and 24th of the season driving to the front of the net and using his long reach to slide the puck around an outstretched Nikkel, as the Vipers outshot the Smokies 35-18 through two periods.
The Vipers also picked up Trail AP Dallas Calvin from the Beaver Valley Nitehawks for the game, and the Hawks leading scorer would come alive in the third, making a nifty move around a Smokie defender then blasting a puck off the blocker of Nikkel and over his shoulder for the snakes’ Castlegar native Ryan Renz to clean up.
The Smokies would find some life in the third when Joel Webb took a Brian Basilico pass and outwaited Vernon goalie Austin Smith before putting it in at 6:43. Five minutes later Basilico would net his own on the power play. Webb worked the puck down low, and Basilico’s cross-crease pass went off a surprised Smith and into the goal to cut the lead to 6-3.
Calvin completed the scoring with 68 seconds to play, firing a laser off the cross bar and in behind Nikkel for the 7-3 victory.
“It was good, nice to get the win,” said Calvin. “I felt more comfortable the more I went on, got easier to stickhandle the puck and make some plays.”
It was a crucial win for a Vipers’ team that is coming off two losses to Langley last week, and is in a tight race with Merritt and Salmon Arm for the third and fourth playoff spots.
“With the Interior division being so tight, it was a good rebound game I thought,” said Viper’s coach Jason Williamson. “Obviously we started real well, and just kind of rode it from there, but all in all I was pretty happy with our game.”
The Vipers now sit three points ahead of Merritt and four points over Salmon Arm, but the two teams have a game in hand, and the Vipers final six games include two matches against first-place Penticton, a pair against second-place West Kelowna, and singles versus Trail and Salmon Arm.
“We’re just trying to take it one game at a time – we have to,” added Williamson. “We’re not in (the playoffs) yet, we haven’t clinched. We have to make sure we take care of our business here first.”
The Vipers were also without forward Mason Blacklock who has been troubled by injury all season, but Williamson expects his return by next week.
The Smokies meanwhile have five games remaining, with just two games at home on Feb. 26 versus Vernon and Feb. 28 against West Kelowna, and will look to end the season on a positive note.
“We wanted to play these last seven games like it was our playoffs,” said Clair. “We started good against Chilliwack and let it slip, and tonight we finally had a full roster and felt we had the right mental makeup before the game . . . unfortunately it didn’t translate on the ice for some reason.”
Vernon outshot the Smokies 50-26, with Dancs getting first star, Sparrow second star, and Trail’s Basilico was named third star of the night.