“The fifth time’s the charm, baby.”
So said a pumped Vernon Vipers captain Jagger Williamson, a mere 45 minutes before he and his teammates, coaches, staff and broadcaster boarded the bus to head to Prince George Thursday morning for Game 1 of the B.C. Hockey League’s Fred Page Cup best-of-seven championship series with the Spruce Kings.
Games 1 and 2 are in B.C. Northern capital Friday and Saturday.
The series shifts to Kal Tire Place Tuesday and Wednesday (7 p.m. starts) for Games 3 and 4.
Williamson, in his fifth and final year with the Vipers, has, at long last, reached the last series in the league.
A rookie in 2014-15, Williamson and the Vipers fell in seven games in the Interior Division final to Penticton. The next year, the Vees took out the Vipers in five games in the first round. Year Three, Williamson again reached the Division final, only to lose in Game 7 to Penticton. Last season, the Vipers fell in five game in the semifinals to the eventual champion Wenatchee Wild.
“I’m excited, a great way to wind up my time in the league,” said Williamson, the pride of Lumby, who is in a five-way tie for fifth place in playoff scoring with five goals, 11 assists, 16 points. Linemate Jesse Lansdell (4-12-16) and Prince George’s Ben Poisson (10-6-16) are the only players left playing in the top-10.
“I can’t wait to get there and get playing. The Spruce Kings are going to be tough. They’re on a roll right now. It’s going to be an interesting, exciting series. It’s fun to be playing a team we haven’t seen in awhile or played six or seven times this season.”
To say the Spruce Kings are rolling is an understatement.
Prince George has rattled off nine straight wins, sweeping the defending national champion and reigning regular-season pennant-winning Chilliwack Chiefs, then dispatching the Island Division champion Victoria Grizzlies in four straight.
Goalie Logan Neaton has played all 13 playoff games for the 12-1 Spruce Kings, who lost in their Fred Page Cup debut a year ago to the Wild in five games. Neaton has a 1.47 goals against average, a .936 save percentage and two shutouts.
Vernon counters with the current BCHL Player of the Week in goalie Aidan Porter, honoured for going 3-0 in the final three games against the Wild with a shutout, one first-start and two second-start performances. Porter has started all 17 Vernon playoff games, compiling a record of 12-5 with a 2.22 GAA and a .910 save percentage with one shutout.
The Spruce Kings swept the season series, 2-0, against Vernon – in fact, you have to go back to 2017 to find the last time the Vipers defeated Prince George – winning 2-1 at home Dec. 5 and coming to Vernon Jan. 19 and leaving with a 4-1 victory.
“The Finals present a fascinating contrast behind the bench where 32-year-old Adam Maglio skippers the Spruce Kings and has piled up a combined 72-30-5-9 mark over the last two seasons while Vernon’s head coach is Mark Ferner, 53, a former NHL defenceman who has won three BCHL titles with and two national titles with Vernon, the last of which came in 2010,” said BCHL communication officer Brent Mutis.
Long part of the same division, it was not possible for Vernon and Prince George to meet in the Finals. Prince George left the Interior and joined the Mainland Division in 2013.
The last time the Vipers and Spruce Kings met in the postseason was in 2006 when they competed in the Interior Division opening round. The Vipers won that best-of-seven series by a 4-1 count.
Vernon is seeking a league-record 13th championship. They are currently tied with Penticton, each has 12 titles.
The BCHL champion advances to the best-of-seven Doyle Cup against the Alberta Junior Hockey League winner. That series is slated to begin in Alberta on April 26.
The Brooks Bandits and Spruce Grove Saints will meet in the AJHL’s Inter Pipeline Cup final, starting Friday in Brooks. The Bandits are hosting the National Junior A Championship (formerly RBC Cup) May 11-19, so if they win the AJHL, the winner of Vernon-Prince George gets an automatic berth to the Canadian tournament.
The Doyle Cup series would still be contested.