The Warriors improved as the game wore on and showed a ton of heart in game three in Vernon.
Unfortunately for the Tribe, the Vipers had an awesome start and held on for a 6-4 victory and a 2-1 series lead.
It really was a disastrous start for the Warriors. Matt Anholt won the opening faceoff but Mac Ferner fumbled the puck at his blue line. The play drifted into the Warriors zone, the Vipers won a battle, and Brett Mulcahy converted the ensuing scramble for a 1-0 lead just 22 seconds into the game. The first playoff action in Vernon in three years and the game had swung before most guys had taken a shift.
Vernon got a second when Demico Hannoun buried a Josh Bryan rebound nine minutes in. The Vipers also did a great job of containing West Kelowna early on, and led 2-0 after the first.
The hosts kept the pressure on for the first part of the second period and put the game seemingly out of reach. TJ Dumonceaux pounced on a big rebound to make it 3-0 Vernon three minutes in, and Brett Mulcahy made it 4-0 a couple of minutes later after Brendan Persley had cranked the bar.
The Vipers were the better team for the first 35 minutes or so, however the Warriors really turned things around late in the second and forced the issue throughout the third.
A determined finish from Reid Simmonds got West K. on the board late in the second. The pressure really began to mount early in the third and suddenly the Warriors were all over it.
The puck spent a ton of time in the Vernon end in the final period, and while the Vipers did a good job of keeping much of the pressure to the outside, Austin Smith was also forced to make some really good saves (his glove stop on David Pope with five minutes left was a total gem). Carl Hesler jammed one in just 90 seconds into the third though, and collars in Vernon began to tighten.
Vernon desperately hung on to the nervous lead for most of the period. Andy Desautels, for his part, made the stops he needed to, including a savvy save on a Michael McNicholas penalty shot.
With four minutes left, Liam Blackburn potted his first of the playoffs to make it a one-goal game. Momentum was swinging hugely in West Kelowna’s direction, but the comeback train was derailed when Mulcahy ripped home a professional finish on a Vipers 2-on-1 just 13 seconds later.
Refusing to go quietly, the Warriors got back on the front foot and earned another greasy goal – on Blackburn’s second of the night after an aggressive Ryan Fraser-Lee pinch led to a Persley slashing minor.
The Warriors were within one again and had some hope (if not much energy) left for one last gasp. Unfortunately for the visitors, Brett Mulcahy found the empty-net for his fourth of the game to seal Vernon’s victory. Nice deadline acquisition, Vipers. Nice win too.
Overall, it was another epic hockey game between these rivals, and arguably a more focussed game all around. It was still bruising, playoff-type hockey, but this time without any nasty injuries or hugely controversial plays or calls.
The Vipers were the better team in the first half of the game, and took a big series lead as a result.
The Warriors, however, can feel very positive about doing a lot of things well on the road (despite all the key injuries). And after a showing like that, even if it did end in a loss, there can be no question that this series is far from over.
***I spoke to Andy Desautels BEFORE the game and ran this windy interview in the first intermission of the broadcast, if you’re curious. I also had this conversation with Brett Mulcahy for the second intermission.