Just under 51 minutes into Sunday’s B.C. Hockey League matinée, fans at Bear Mountain Arena let out a collective sigh of relief as Myles Fitzgerald finally managed to put the hosts on the scoreboard.
Fitzgerald’s 22nd tally of the season, at 10:51 of the third period, was enough as the Victoria Grizzlies pulled out a 1-0 squeaker over the visiting Vernon Vipers.
On a fabulous sunny day, where fishing might have been a great option, the Grizzlies were nearly left to ponder the one they let get away.
With the Vipers playing their third game in three days, the Grizzlies needed the late heroics, finally getting to goaltender Austin Smith, who was clearly the best player on the ice. He held the Vipers — who had won in Nanaimo on Friday and Cowichan Valley on Saturday — in the game, stopping 37 of 38 shots.
“We thought Vernon played pretty well,” said Grizzlies associate coach and assistant general manager Craig Didmon. “It was a relief when we got that goal. We wanted more, but we got as many as we needed.
“I thought we had some real good chances that we didn’t capitalize on. But you have to hand it to the guys, we wanted to stick to the game plan for 60 minutes, no matter what the score.”
Smith made a huge save off Gerry Fitzgerald midway through the second period and then turned aside former teammate Pearce Eviston — who was traded from Vernon to Victoria at the deadline — later in the frame.
Grizzlies’ call-up Shawn McBride had a couple of swipes at the opening goal seven minutes into the third, but Smith thwarted those opportunities as well.
He couldn’t quite get to Myles Fitzgerald’s blast, however, on a long rebound through traffic.
“He was solid, didn’t give up many rebounds and I thought their defensive corps was solid and they worked hard,” Didmon said of Smith and Co. “For a team that played three games in three days, that was a good effort.”
And the Vipers had done Victoria a favour in the previous two nights.
“Every two points is critical, especially when we want to win the regular season and carry on from there. Fortunately, they got four points against our Island rivals and that just helps us out that much more,” said Didmon, whose troops improve to 28-9-0-4 and remain in first place overall in the B.C. Hockey League.
Victoria netminder Mike Stiliadis had an easier time of it in earning his second shutout, stopping 23 shots and just five in the third period as the Grizzlies wore down a tired opponent.
Victoria was still without suspended players Kade Pilton, Keyler Bruce and Turner Lawson. Stefan Nicholishen is now lost due to a gash on his calf that he suffered in Friday’s Grizzlies win over Cowichan. The cut is not as bad as originally suspected.
The Grizzlies will now play host to Merritt on Friday and Powell River on Saturday, both at 7:15 p.m. at Bear Mountain Arena.
IN THE DEN: Victoria moved up the Canadian Junior A rankings to No. 4 on Monday, up from sixth last week. ... Brett Hartskamp had two huge hits on Sunday, the first on Andrew Tegeler, who he lined up alng the blueline, and then Mason Blacklock, near the visitors’ bench.
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