Oilers aim for spot at national tourney

by Bruce Tippets

Home ice advantage will be in favor for the Vernal Oilers team during the United States Premier Hockey League playoffs.

The Oilers, who are the No. 1 seed from the Midwest Division, started the postseason playing the Rogue Valley Royals at the Uintah County Western Park Ice Rink.

The playoffs are the best two-out of three format.

“It was huge to get the No. 1 seed for the playoffs playing in front of our fans,” Vernal coach Ryan Howse said. “It’s a big deal for us and for the town of Vernal as well. It’s not an easy place to come in and play. I don’t think we have ever lost two games in Vernal on a weekend. It was a goal of ours. We have a few more goals to go before we are finished.”

Energy picks up a few levels during postseason games.

“Everyone starts with the same records,” said Howse. “It’s do-or-die time. Your season either goes or you go home. A lot of these guys want to keep moving on. This is the last time all of these guys will sit in a room together. I don’t think the end is near for us. We have a lot of work to do.”

Vernal had a 5-1 record against Rogue Valley in the regular season.

“Rogue Valley made some acquisitions over the deadline that improved their group,” Howse said. “I think they are the most improved team in the Northwest Division for sure.”

Seattle checks in as the No. 2 seed from the Midwest, while Casper is No. 3.

“Anyone can beat anyone in the division,” said Howse. “That is the biggest thing. We lost to every team we could see in the playoffs.

Vernal blasted Casper 12-2 and 7-2 to close out the regular season.

“I think this is the best hockey we have played all year,” said Howse.

Howse said the turning point of the regular season came when the Oilers traveled to Fresno, California.

The Oilers were competitive against the Fresno Monsters but lost three very close games.

“We showed we can play with the No. 3 ranked team in the country,” Howse said. “It was a pretty good performance. A lot of people counted us out. We showed a lot of togetherness. It was big from our group. We just kept going from there.”

The Oilers finished as one of just four teams in the league to be led in scoring by a defender.

Filip Lezzani scored 48 points, while forward Rodion Gornostaev and Chase Parry scored 42 points and 41 respectively.

Defensemen Jakub Bulik and Preston Laupitz each blocked 38 shots.

“We play together as a team,” said Howse. “We don’t rely on one or two guys. We rely on everyone every night. That is our biggest strength is the balanced attack. We stand by everyone in the room. That is something we have gotten better at. We are still improving.”

Vernal goalie Levente Hegedus finished fourth in the USPHL with a save percentage of .935 and his 16 wins were good for top 10 in the league.