The Vernon Vipers have taken a 2-1 lead in their best of seven Interior Division semi-final with the West Kelowna Warriors thanks to a 6-4 win Friday in Vernon.
After splitting the first two games in West Kelowna, the Vipers stormed to an early lead and then held on for a nervous finish as the Warriors came on late
Hosting their first playoff game in three years, the Vipers got early momentum when Brett Mulcahy converted a scramble after a West Kelowna turnover on the opening face-off.
The Snakes kept the pressure on and built up a 4-0 lead early in the second on goals by Demico Hannoun, TJ Dumonceaux, and a second from Mulcahy.
Late in the second period, the Warriors began to show signs of life. Some good shifts led to a pair of Vernon penalties, and while West Kelowna didn’t cash in on the power-plays, Reid Simmonds struck soon afterwards to get the guests on the board.
West Kelowna turned up the heat in the third and made a game of it.
An early goal from Carl Hesler sparked the club, and Liam Blackburn scored his first of the playoffs with around four minutes remaining to get the Tribe within one.
Momentum was building, but got snatched right back when Brett Mulcahy buried an odd-man rush just 13 seconds after Blackburn’s 4-3 marker.
Undeterred, the Warriors earned another power-play and drew back within a goal for a second time on Blackburn’s second of the game. “We were positive on the bench” Blackburn says. “We started hitting and we started winning some puck battles.”
With 2 ½ minutes remaining on the clock, the Warriors sought the equalizer and one more theatric comeback in a season filled with drama.
However, with Andy Desautels on the bench for the extra attacker, Mulcahy found the empty net for his fourth goal of the evening, clinching Vernon’s win. A former Warrior, Mulcahy had scored three times in game two and was named the first star for the second straight outing.
Playing without six of their top players, the Warriors called up three affiliates to help plug some gaps, with defenceman Michael Winnitoy earning plenty of ice-time.
“I love playing a lot” Winnitoy smiled afterwards. “I was happy with my play” he says, while also suggesting he’d like to work on “slowing things down and making more plays.”
Winnitoy had played five games for West Kelowna during the regular season, and became available when his Summerland Steam lost a game-seven showdown with North Okanagan on Wednesday.
Winnitoy says the physicality of that KIJHL playoff series helped prepare him for the hostilities of the BCHL playoffs. “They [North Okanagan] bring a two-man hard forecheck just like Vernon does.”
While disappointed with the defeat, Winnitoy and Blackburn both stressed their gratification in the way the Warriors had finished the game.
“The boys were down going into the third and we pushed back real hard” Winnitoy says, with Blackburn adding “We wanted to make sure that the series wasn’t over and send a message coming into the next game.
Saturday’s pivotal game four begins at 7 p.m. at Kal Tire Place in Vernon.