Jonathan Desbiens pocketed 1+2 as the West Kelowna Warriors held off the Vernon Vipers 6-4 in a B.C. Hockey League Wednesday morning special at Kal Tire Place.
A crowd of 2,672, including 1,800 elementary school students waving pink thunder sticks and holding signs promoting anti-bullying, watched as the Warriors beat the Vipers for the second straight morning. West Kelowna won 4-1 with two empty netters 24 hours earlier at Royal LePage Place.
Desbiens, a slick 19-year-old from Montreal, earned first star and moved into sole possession of fourth place in the league points derby, a dozen digits back of Penticton Vees’ superstar Tyson Jost.
The Warriors, a much bigger and older team than the Vipers, stuck to a basic structure and kept the Vipers to the perimeter for most of the contest. West Kelowna is second in the Interior Division at 36-17-2-1. The second-highest offensive team in the BCHL won their 18th road game.
West Kelowna has two regular-season games remaining and are seven points ahead of the third-place Salmon Arm Silverbacks, who have five games left. The Warriors and Gorillas will meet in the first round of the playoffs.
Vernon dipped to 22-28-3-0 and hold the fourth and final playoff spot, two points in front of the Merritt Centennials with one game hand in hand. The Vipers have five games left, starting with a return visit to West Kelowna Friday night. The Vipers are in Chilliwack Saturday night.
Desbiens, in his second season with the Warriors, enjoyed the change in routine and got a charge out of playing in front of hundreds of young fans. He says the Warriors are already in playoff mode.
“Like (head coach Ferster) Ryan said, it’s like a mini playoff series right now, just getting ready for the playoffs, doing everything right, getting good details and no bad habits going for us.”
Forward Ben Butcher opened the scoring for the second straight morning when he poked in a loose puck on the goal-line 9:19 after the national anthem. Roadrunner Liam Finlay, with Liam Blackburn on his tail during a breakaway sprint from centre, bobbled the puck on a deke, bringing goalie Keelan Williams with him to the side of the net.
Kylar Hope equalized five minutes later from the left porch on a gorgeous bang-bang play 32 seconds into Viper captain Colton McCarthy’s roughing minor. Desbiens and d-man Kristian Blumenschein drew sweet assists.
Blumenschein made it 2-1 Warriors midway through the second stanza on a floater from the point, 75 seconds into a power play with Bo Pellah off for hooking. Bryan Basilico and Desbiens garnered helpers.
Connor Sodergren, on a nifty 2-on-1 with Quin Foreman, and Garrett Forster, on a wrister which fooled Andrew Shortridge short side, supplied Warrior goals six minutes apart to finish the period.
Viper 16-year-old rookie Brett Stapley brought the house down 2:11 into the third when he buried a rebound off a Steven Jandric shot in tight. Pellah earned the secondary assist as the Vipers amped their attack with a touch more urgency.
D-man Nicholas Rutigliano deflated the Vipers 10 minutes later with a shorthanded tally when he converted a rebound on Shortridge’s doorstep after Hope’s shot.
Odeen Tufto, with his team-leading 22nd snipe, and d-man Callum Volpe’s deflection goal, 58 seconds apart, pulled the Vipers within one. Volpe’s goal came with a sixth attacker.
The Vipers faced some intense checking in the West Kelowna zone during the next 20 seconds and Desbiens out-smarted two defenders and hit the empty net with 16 seconds to play. Desbiens leads the Warriors with 42 goals.
Tufto said he hadn’t played a meaningful morning game since his minor days in Minnesota, but he enjoyed the unique experience.
“Both games, we came out really well,” said Tufto. “Last game, they didn’t get anything going until the third period and today, we didn’t really give them anything at the start. Then we took some penalties and that got us in trouble and they got some motivation and energy from that.”
Tufto says the Vipers are using a calm approach to the stretch run.
“We’re still up by two points with a game in hand. Every game is the biggest game of the year and we play these guys again in two days so we have to prepare for them again. We’re not panicking but we gotta win some games here.”
Sodergren was second star ahead of Blumenschein, while the Vipers’ Fortis Energy Player of the Game was Finlay.
Referee Mike Campbell worked the one-man system and gave Vernon’s Riley Brandt a blow-to-the-head minor and misconduct in the second period after a hit on Rutigliano. The school children went extra bonkers when Butcher and Reed Gunville exchanged punches in the game’s only scrap 2:39 into the third period. The fight was a draw.
Desbiens said the Warriors, a much heavier team than the league-leading Vees, are hoping for a long playoff run.
“We’re big, fast, strong, we’ve got everything,” said the former member of the USHL Lincoln Stars. “Our guys play their role. Our offensive guys do their job, defensive guys do their job and it’s pretty good team chemistry. This is the best team I’ve been apart of for a long time.”
West Kelowna outshot Vernon 43-36.