As unlikely as it may have seemed at the end of the regular season, the Vernon Vipers will play for the B.C. Hockey League championship.
The Vipers’ playoff run has led them to the league final, where they’ll face the Coquitlam Express in the first-ever championship series match-up between two teams that finished third in their respective divisions in the regular season; Vernon was No. 3 in the Interior Division, while the Express had the third-best record in the Mainland Division.
“We’re extremely excited to be in the final,” Vipers head coach Jason Williamson told the Vernon Morning Star. “We set out at the beginning of the year to be in the final as one of our goals, and hopefully win it.”
It is the 18th time since the start of the Centennial Cup era in 1970 that Vernon will play in the BCHL final; it is 11-6 in its previous trips, and has won its last three appearances, in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
Of course, the Vipers are playing with house money; as the host team for the 2014 RBC Cup, they already know they’ll have a chance at a record seventh national championship.
But they want to win their way there.
“We’ve always stressed we wanted to go about this the right way and win our way into the Royal Bank Cup,” said Williamson. “There’s only two teams left in our league and we’ve put ourselves into a good position.”
Vernon is the fifth consecutive RBC Cup host team to play in its league final, and is looking to become the fourth of those teams to win a championship, joining Dauphin in 2010, Humboldt in 2012 and Summerside last year.
The Vipers earned their spot in the final by finishing first in the BCHL’s new semifinal round robin, earning a 5-4 win over the Victoria Grizzlies on the road before routing Coquitlam 6-1 at Kal Tire Place.
When the Express swept Victoria in their home-and-home series, the final two games of the round robin – both of which would have featured the Vipers – were unnecessary, and the final was set.
Dexter Dancs and Liam Coughlin were the scoring stars for the Vipers in their two semifinal games; Dancs had two goals and two assists, while Coughlin added a goal and three assists.
Colton Sparrow had a goal and an assist in the semifinals and leads the Vipers in playoff scoring; his 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) in 15 games are good for third in the BCHL, although he is the top scorer still active in the postseason.
Austin Smith has played every second of playoff hockey in the Vernon goal, fashioning a 2.67 goals-against average and .917 save percentage.
The Vipers have won two of three against the Express this season; in addition to Vernon’s semifinal round robin win, the teams split a pair of regular season meetings – Coquitlam earned a 4-2 home-ice victory on Dec. 8, before the Vipers returned the favour on Jan. 11 with a 3-1 victory at Kal Tire Place.
The BCHL champion will advance to the 2014 Western Canada Cup, which begins April 25 in Dauphin, Man.
VERNON VIPERS VS. COQUITLAM EXPRESS
Game 1 – Friday, April 11 – Coquitlam @ Vernon
Game 2 – Saturday, April 12 – Coquitlam @ Vernon
Game 3 – Monday, April 14 – Vernon @ Coquitlam
Game 4 – Tuesday, April 15 – Vernon @ Coquitlam
* Game 5 – Thursday, April 17 – Coquitlam @ Vernon
* Game 6 – Saturday, April 19 – Vernon @ Coquitlam
* Game 7 – Sunday, April 20 – Coquitlam @ Vernon
* if necessary
Follow the British Columbia Hockey League playoffs at www.bchl.ca, or follow the nation-wide Road to the RBC Cup at www.hockeycanada.ca/rbccup.