In a showdown of two goalies who were teammates until last week, Prince George Spruce Kings puckstopper Logan Neaton had the last laugh.
Neaton lost his shutout bid with 32 seconds left in the game, about 12 minutes after Vernon Vipers goalie Bradley Cooper, Neaton's former Spruce Kings teammate, said goodbye to his.
But that wasn't what put a smile on Neaton' face. It was the final score that did it. This one was close all the way through and the Spruce Kings left the ice at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena with a 2-1 victory.
Kings winger Dustin Manz was the first shooter to strike. He took a carom off the end boards, a shot that came from pointman Liam Watson-Brawn, and with no Viper in his immediate proximity he had time to play with the puck before drifting a low wrister along the ice that found a sliver of net to the far side 7:22 into the third period.
The Kings made it 2-0 with 1:12 left when Ben Brar took the puck off the side boards and from just south of his own ringette line while down on one knee he scored with a long slapper into the empty Vernon net.
It looked like Neaton was well on his way to his second BCHL shutout but the Vipers won a draw in the P.G. end and with 32 seconds left Teddy Wooding put a shot on net that trickled through the legs of Neaton.
It was Brar's sixth game-winning goal this season. He's scored three of the four empty-net goals the Kings have in 2018-19.
Cooper, 19, was in his second BCHL season with the Spruce Kings until Nov. 27, when he was traded to the Vipers along with future considerations for 19-year-old winger Garrett Worth. Wednesday's game marked his first start in a Vipers uniform.
"I had a lot of emotions coming into this game, I was a little nervous but confident at the same time," said Cooper, a native of West Vancouver. "We battled hard and came up short. I wish I'd had that goal but it's just the way to goes sometimes.
"It's tough because that's one I really wanted to win. Brar is the king of empty nets. It was overall a good game with tough battles and I think the boys were trying to fight for me to win that one especially."
Cooper has grown quite accustomed to having donuts up on the scoreboard. In his first 23 games in the league with Kings he posted six shutouts, including his two goose eggs at RMCA this season against Coquitlam and Salmon Arm.
"It was nice coming back and being here," he said. "P.G's close to home for me, I've lived my last year-and-a-half here and it was a cool experience playing here again, on the opposite side."
The two-point victory moved the Spruce Kings (22-8-1-2) back to first overall in the 17-team BCHL. The Vipers (11-11-6-3) remained sixth in the Interior Division.
The game had added meaning because of what happened Wednesday afternoon in Chilliwack, where the Chiefs beat the Langley Rivermen 3-1 to vault one point ahead of the Spruce Kings. Chilliwack (23-9-0-0) hosts Powell River and Trail this weekend.
Neither team was able to score in the first 40 minutes. The Kings held the Vipers to six shots in the opening period but it was a much different story in the second period and the Kings were lucky to get out of it unscathed.
The Vipers made Neaton earn his keep in goal I that second period, pounding 15 shots at the 19-year-old from Michigan. They had good pressure in the Prince George end during their two power-play chances but the Kings made sure Neaton saw the shots coming at him and limited the Vipers' second-shot opportunities.
The Vipers top liners, Connor Marritt, Jagger Williamson and Matt Kowalski, proved the most troublesome for the Kings and they were guilty of making a lot more turnovers in the neutral zone than Kings' fans have been accustomed to seeing.
The Kings cranked up the intensity toward the end of the period and forced Cooper to make several difficult saves on close-in tires near the net. Nolan Welsh had the best chance, following up on the rebound a long shot from Ben Poisson. Welsh dragged the puck across the crease and let go a high backhander but Cooper was ready for it.
LOOSE PUCKS: The same teams meet again in Vernon on Jan. 9...The Spruce Kings dressed two affiliated players. Defenceman Brendan Wang, 16, played his first BCHL game, called up from the Burnaby Winter Club midget prep team. The Kings were without three regulars on the blueline with Layton Ahac and Nick Bochen at the Canada West team tryouts for the World Junior A Hockey Challenge and Dylan Anhorn out with a concussion. John Herrington, a 16-year-old Cariboo Cougars major midget right winger, suited up for his second junior A game, filling in for injured winger Cory Cunningham (shoulder) and Worth (flu). The Vipers were missing defenceman Jack Judson and forward Alex Swetlikoff. Both will join Ahac on Canada West in the WJAHC tournament which starts Sunday in Bonnyville, Alta.