Call it a holy roller.
For the Prince George Spruce Kings and their loyal fans, Ben Poisson’s last-shot volley into an empty net was the ultimate tension-reliever that took the stuffing out of the Vernon Vipers Friday in the opening game of the BCHL Fred Page Cup championship series.
Nursing a 2-1 lead, Poisson gained the puck just outside his own crease and chipped a shot that landed outside the blueline. The puck landed on edge and took off on a solo journey with the Vipers desperately trying to catch up. It appeared to be rolling wide but at the last second took a Prince George turn and found the empty net just inside the post.
That sealed a 3-1 Kings’ victory in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series. Game 2 of the series is set for tonight (7 p.m.) at RMCA.
Until that point it was still anyone’s game and the nervous tension on the ice was shared by a sellout crowd of 2,112, many of whom have seen nothing but home-ice victories for the Spruce Kings, who had won all seven of their previous playoff games at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena.
“It’s obviously good to get the first one out of the way but we have to have a short memory here and focus on tomorrow and getting the next one,” said Kings goalie Logan Neaton, who made 23 saves in a first-star performance that improved his playoff record to 13-1.
“It was a tight game but it was what we expected. We knew we weren’t playing as high calibre of offence, per say, but they’re a team that plays the right way. They play hard, they get in on the forecheck and get a lot of pucks deep and put pressure on you. We knew it’s not going to be games where we’ll blow them out. We’re going to have to play good smart hockey for 60 minutes.”
Lucas Vanroboys and Ben Brar were the other goalscorers for Prince George. Jesse Lansdell notched the Vipers’ goal.
Just before Poisson’s empty-netter, the Vipers had a couple of good chances with Aidan Porter on the bench and Teddy Wooding just missed putting the puck in from the side of the net with Neaton flat on his belly.
“We had a great start and I thought all three periods we played fairly well and that was a great first game,” said Vipers captain Jagger Williamson, a fifth-year centre.
“I haven’t seen this team for a long time so it was just play out the wrinkles. It was just two good teams going head-to-head and unfortunately they came out of top. (Neaton) has been the backbone for them and I think they’ve only lost one. We just have to get traffic in front of him, take his eyes away and just make it hard on him because he’s a helluva goalie.”
The shots ended up 24-23 in Vernon’s favour.
The Kings were ahead 1-0 seven minutes into the third period when Jack Judson led a Vipers’ rush and hit the crossbar with a high-slot ripper. Three minutes later Vernon got the equalizer they were after. Williamson let go a shot that was tipped in by Lansdell. Neaton thought Lansdell’s stick was above the crossbar when he deflected the puck but the officials were well-positioned to make the call. The goal came 9:53 into the third.
The Kings had an answer for that and it came with 7:38 left on the clock. Chong Min Lee, the hardworking Korean-born winger, got his legs moving as he carried the puck into the high slot and let go a hard shot that Brar deflected in for his third of the playoffs.
Prince George struck first 4:32 into the second period. Nolan Welsh’s speed made the goal possible when he turned on the jets and beat defenceman Carver Watson to the puck. Welsh carried behind the net and left it deep in the Vernon end for Layton Ahac. Vanroboys was left unguarded in the slot and he deflected Ahac’s pass in for his fourth of the playoffs.
The play opened up slightly in the second period and both teams had their chances on power plays. The Vipers went on the attack 15 seconds in with Dustin Manz sent off for slashing and had the puck in the Kings end for a good chunk of the penalty but thanks to the shot blocking of defencemen Dylan Anhorn and Jay Keranen they were unable to get much rubber on Neaton.
“I don’t know how many shot blocks we had tonight but it was pretty amazing to see,” said Neaton. “Even our forwards were filling lanes and that’s a group that’s committed to the team goal and it’s good to see.”
The Kings put some heat on Porter when they had the extra skater for two minutes late in the period but the Vipers kept the shots well to the outside.
This is expected to be tight-checking series and that’s exactly how it shaped up in the opener as the teams fought for real estate on the ice. The Kings did not allow a shot until the 10-minute mark and right after the media timeout the Vipers came close to scoring. Carver Watson let go a shot from the point that Neaton stopped and Wooding got to the rebound and put the puck through Neaton’s pads but the puck slid just wide of the net.
The Kings’ fourth line made effective use of its icetime and tested goalie Porter about seven minutes in when 15-year-old rookie centre Finn Williams fed a back-door pass to Nick Wilson and his shot from close range was stopped by Porter’s glove.
Vernon will host Game 3 and 4 Tuesday and Wednesday.
LOOSE PUCKS: The Spruce Kings were without 20-year-old D Liam Watson-Brawn, out with an upper-body injury he suffered in Game 4 of the Coastal Conference championship in Victoria, April 2…The BCHL champion will go on to meet the Alberta Junior Hockey League champion in the best-of-seven Doyle Cup series. The AJHL champion will host the first two games of that series, April 26-27. If either team sweeps the first two games the next five games, if needed, would be played in the BCHL champions’ rink. Those games would be played on Tuesday, April 30, Wednesday, May 1, Friday, May 3, Saturday, May 4 and Sunday, May 5. If the first two games of the series are split, Game 3 would follow in Alberta on Sunday, April 28, with the next four games, if necessary, to be played in B.C., May 1, 2, 4 and 5… The AJHL championship between the Brooks Bandits and Spruce Grove Saints started Friday night in Brooks, Alta., and Brooks skated to a 3-2 win. The Bandits went 57-3-0 in the regular season and after a first-round playoff bye they’ve put together a 9-2-1 playoff record. The Saints, defending AJHL champions, finished third in the South Division (40-17-3) and are 11-3-1 so far in the playoffs…Brooks is hosting the national junior A championship, May 11-19. If the Bandits win the AJHL title, they would still play the BCHL champs in the Doyle Cup and both teams would automatically qualify for the six-team national tournament. If Brooks loses the series to Spruce Grove, only the Doyle Cup winners would advance and the Bandits would retain their host team slot.
Fred Page Cup championship
PRINCE GEORGE SPRUCE KINGS VS. VERNON VIPERS
(Spruce Kings lead best-of-seven series 1-0)
Vipers 1 at Spruce Kings 3
Penalties – Williamson Ver (slashing), Manz PG (slashing) 16:59.
1. Prince George, Vanroboys 4 (Ahac, Welsh) 4:32
Penalties – Manz PG (slashing) 0:15, Zablocki Ver (tripping) 14:28.
2. Vernon, Lansdell 5 (Williamson, Judson) 9:53
3. Prince George, Brar (Lee) 12:22
4. Prince George, B.Poisson 11, 19:08 (en)
Penalties – None.
Shots on goal by
Vernon 5 8 11 -24
Prince George 7 6 10 -23
Goal – Vernon, Porter (L,12-6); Prince George, Neaton (W,13-1).
Power plays – Ver: 0-1; PG: 0-1.
Referees – Ward Pateman, Jeff Eden; Linesmen – Riley Balson, Anthony Malleta.
Attendance – 2,112 (sellout).
Scratches – Vernon: D Landon Fuller (served third game of three-game suspension), F Nicholas Cherkowski (healthy), F Elan Bar-Lev-Wise (healthy); Prince George: D Liam Watson-Brawn (upper body, day-to-day), F Tyler Schleppe (healthy), F Spencer DenBeste (healthy), F Craig MacDonald (healthy).