The Red Deer Vipers have spent this Heritage Junior B Hockey League season being only consistent in their inconsistency.
But as they closed out their regular season with a two-game sweep of the High River Flyers (10-28-0), including a 6-1 win in Saturday’s finale at the Red Deer Arena, they enter the post-season with the momentum in their corner.
The win vaulted the Vipers (18-18-2) to a .500 record and fourth place in the North Division, giving them home ice advantage for their first round best-of-three series with the Three Hills Thrashers.
Game 1 goes Tuesday at 7:45 p.m. at the Arena.
“(Home ice advantage) is big for us because we usually play better at home than we do on the road, we usually have slow starts on the road, so that was the goal,” said Vipers head coach JD Morrical.
Mitch Morrision scored twice for the Vipers while they got singles from captain Justin Corbett, Kale Lapointe, Nick Glackin, and Colton Weseen. Backup goalie Rylan Bardick was solid in stopping 34 of 35 shots.
Kade Bleackley scored the Flyers’ lone goal while Tyler Fornwald allowed six goals on 39 shots before being replaced at 13:39 of the final period. Ryan Fisher stopped all four shots he faced in relief.
The Vipers dominated all game, taking a 2-0 lead in the first period and a 3-0 lead at 2:15 of the third period. Bleackley did get the Flyers into the game with a goal at 3:28 but the hosts came back with three more goals to close out the contest.
The Vipers now have little turnaround time to prepare for the first round of the playoffs.
Twelve months ago they entered the post-season as a team divided with Morrical taking over as head coach in the final few days of the campaign. Much of this season was spent repairing those issues and building a team that will play for each other.
“Last year we had a nervousness in the dressing room, but this year you can tell the boys are really excited, ready to go and rally around each other,” said Corbett
For the Vipers, it’s not just about this season. They are building towards hosting provincials in 2016 as the final event to be played in the Red Deer Arena before it is torn down.
They will have their work cut out for them against the Thrashers in the first round this year, despite winning the season series 3-1.
It took until the final game of the regular season for the Vipers to catch the Thrashers in the standings, as Three Hills also lost 5-1 to the Stettler Lightning. Red Deer’s biggest advantage may come on offence, outscoring Three Hills by 42 goals this season.
Always in the back of the Vipers’ minds is that the Thrashers eliminated Red Deer in the first round last year, two games to one.
“They’ve been slumping a little bit but they’re always tough,” said Morrical. “They come hard, they’re fast, they’re speedy; if we play tough and we play our hockey we’ll be fine. But we have to come with that attitude, with a mean streak, and that’s what has to come out in the playoffs.”
Always looming if the Vipers do make it beyond the Thrashers in the first round will be a showdown with the Blackfalds Wranglers (34-2-2) who earned a first round bye after finishing first overall in the standings. The defending provincial champions will face the lowest seeded remaining team in the North in the best-of-seven second round.
The Vipers are confident that they can make a run this year, after having played the Wranglers tough all season, including handing them their first regulation loss.
“We’ve got the man power and everyone is willing to die for each other, so I think we can do it,” said Corbett.
Game 2 will go in Three Hills on either Thursday or Friday with Game 3, if needed, going Saturday at the Red Deer Arena at 8 p.m.
NOTES — In Friday’s 4-1 win at High River, Cole deGraaf sniped two goals for the Vipers, while Connor Veroba and Dustin Spearing also scored and Spearing contributed three assists … The other first round series in the HJHL North pits the No. 3 Mountainview Colts (22-13-3) against the No. 6 Stettler Lightning (14-20-4), while the No. 2 Airdrie Thunder (23-13-2) also have a bye. In the South, the No. 3 Okotoks Bisons (23-13-2) play the No. 6 Banff Bears (12-23-3) and the No. 4 Medicine Hat Cubs (19-17-2) take on the No. 5 Strathmore Wheatland Kings (15-19-4). The No. 1 Coaldale Copperheads (31-6-1) and the No. 2 Cochrane Generals (25-10-3) have a bye.