Some thought Vernon Viper dynamo Odeen Tufto may not finish the game after taking a blow to the head from Matt Brown of the Surrey Eagles with 5:23 remaining in regulation Tuesday night.
The Minnesota product slowly removed himself from the boards in front of the Surrey bench and announced he was fine to keep playing in the B.C. Hockey League encounter before 1,592 fans at Kal Tire Place.
Tufto surely avoided any head trauma as he made a nifty move on a d-man and beat goalie Justin Laforest in tight for his team-high 24th goal of the season 53 seconds into three-on-three overtime as the Vipers held off the Eagles 3-2.
Liam Finlay and defenceman Mitch Oliver, who finished with three helpers, drew the assists.
“When I go out on OT, I’m always out there with Finns and we work pretty well together, ” said the 155-pound Tufto, a 19-year-old Minnesota product with a scholarship locked up with the Quinnipiac Bobcats near Hartford. “We love the four-on-four and three-on-three. It allows us to use our creativity and speed and we’ve done that play before in OT. I just cut to the middle and got a shot off and fortunately it went in.”
Laforest was all-planet for the last overall Eagles with 55 saves for first star. The Vipers registered 23 Grade A scoring chances. He stoned Tufto on a breakaway late in the four-on-four first overtime session after Oliver nailed Tufto with a gorgeous stretch pass.
Vernon moved ahead of the idle Merritt Centennials into sole possession of the fourth and final playoff spot in the Interior Division. The Vipers have 49 points with two games remaining: Friday at home versus the Wenatchee Wild and Saturday in Trail against the Smoke Eaters.
Trail shaded the visiting Salmon Arm Silverbacks 3-2 Tuesday night with Vernon product Harlan Orr, who turned 21 Monday, supplying the winner midway through the third period, his 11th snipe of the year. The Smokies have 48 points and one game to play.
The Centennials have 47 points with remaining tilts at home against Wenatchee and the first overall Penticton Vees.
“This is big,” added Tufto. “We really have to win one more game and we’re in the playoffs so Friday and or Saturday are gonna be huge. Again, they’re gonna be the biggest games of the year.”
Surrey, a seven-win team carrying just two 20-year-olds (one is Laforest), showed some marvellous moxy in the opening period with Tyler Andrews converting in close on a power play at 7:30. Donovan Ott and d-man Austin Anselmo earned the assists.
The Eagles enjoyed an early seven-minute man advantage after Viper d-man Latrell Charleson was called for an instigator minor and fighting major after throwing a couple of punches at towering Eagle blueliner Tyler Cooper along the sidewall near the penalty box.
Charleson, a former Eagle, stepped in to stand up for Ben Butcher, who went hard into the boards after a high hit by Cooper.
Shortly after Andrews pocketed his ninth of the season, the Vipers enjoyed a two-on-one shorthanded chance with Jagger Williamson striking the left post.
The Eagles moved in front 2-0 six minutes into the second stanza when slick Jeffrey Stewart celebrated his 18th birthday by fooling Andrew Shortridge with a wrister from the ringette line. Ott and Kurt Black drew the assists.
Stewart, who was talking to a college scout after the game in the corridor, was Surrey’s strongest forward all night. He drove hard to the net 95 seconds into the first overtime and just missed and earlier just failed to convert on back-to-back gift giveaways by Oliver and Tufto on a shorthanded mission late in regulation.
“We knew they were desperate for a playoff spot so we just wanted to prove to our teammates next year that we can do it and try and kick them out of a playoff spot,” said Stewart, a Surrey native who expects most of the young Eagles back next year.
Stewart figures Laforest, who rang up a 30-win season with a 2.13 GAA for the Royal Bank Cup champion Portage Terriers of Manitoba last year, deserves an NCAA deal. Laforest was a back-up tender with the Carleton Place Canadians of Ontario at the 2014 RBC in Vernon.
“I’m surprised he’s not committed yet. He’s putting up 60 saves almost every night. We just gotta keep working on our defence and hopefully he can get a scholarship somewhere.”
Tufto hadn’t seen a net detective showing like that for a few months.
“He (Laforest) played good. I think the last time I saw that was Langley (Bo Didur shut out the Snakes Feb. 12 in Vernon) and we didn’t get any past Langley, Our first goal was a shot from the point and two guys in front of the net and a rebound that was smacked in so it had to be kind of gritty. It took a while, but we finally got him.”
Vernon captain Colton McCarthy banged in his 19th of the season with 3:33 left in the second period on Laforst’s doorstep. Oliver and Williamson picked up helpers on the powerplay tally which came with 29 seconds left in Gage Mackie’s hooking penalty.
Just a minute later, Finlay was assessed a tripping minor and Riley Brandt handled the puck for almost 25 seconds deep in the Surrey zone, dishing to McCarthy in front for a close call. On the next face-off, Joe Sacco buried a rebound off a shot by Williamson for the shorthanded equalizer. Sacco has 10 snipes on the year.
The Vipers pressed for the winner in the final 90 seconds of regulation with Hunter Zandee having the puck hop over his stick as he went for the backhand into a wide open net with seven seconds to play.
Laforest registered his finest stop of the night when he flashed leather on blueliner Mac Ferner on a power play late in the second period.
Shortridge recorded 35 saves, many tough ones as the Eagles hemmed the Vipers in their zone a few times. Shortridge delivered a big save on a nice redirect by Black with 37 seconds remaining in the second period.
Surrey came in with nobody counting 20 goals. Their leading scorer is Black, a Lake Country product who has 18, his first five with the Smoke Eaters. Surrey (46 losses) visits the Vees (48 wins) Wednesday night at the South Okanagan Events Centre.