After being one win away from a shot at Alberta Junior B hockey supremacy last season, The Red Deer Vipers needed to get younger.
Generally, that youth movement comes at a cost, moving inexperienced players into the Heritage Junior B Hockey League (HJHL) takes time.
What head coach JD Morrical has found through the first half of the year, is a team that sits just five points out of the northern division lead, and in his eyes might even be better than last season.
“We’ve gotten quite a few guys back in the last two months and we’re actually a really strong team. Last year we were strong, we hosted provincials and we had a very good run, we lost in the semi-finals. This year we might actually be better. It’s going to get excited here in the next couple months,” Morrical said.
His team has a record of 19-8-1 heading into the Christmas break.
Morrical’s squad has benefited from one of the league’s best goaltending tandems through 28 games. Branden Bilodeau, 19, has an 11-5 record this season, and one of the leagues’ lowest goals against average at 2.40. The save percentage of .930, for goalies with a minimum of 10 starts is also the lowest in the league. Cole Sears isn’t far behind with a 3.33 GAA and an .891 save percentage to go along with eight wins.
“I would say overall, the team is built better. We have a lot of younger guys this year, last year we were an old team. This year we have a lot of youth and they are all bonding together. Our offence is great, our defence is good and our goaltending… we have the two best goalies in the league by far. Everything has fallen into our laps here,” Morrical said.
The Vipers have allowed a northern division low of 81 goals in 28 games and sit just behind Cochrane and Coaldale for the league low. Their puck-stopping ability statistically stands out, but Morrical is most impressed with his team’s scoring, including five or more goals in four of five December wins.
“I knew that our defence would be solid,” he said. “Ever since we got Logan Linnell back, he’s been making Kale Lapointe a lot better. These last few weekends we’ve had a very explosive offence.”
The offensive outburst and strong goaltending has led to a renewed belief in the playoff possibilities.
“As a coach, at the start of the year I really didn’t think we had a shot to get to provincials,” Morrical recalled. “Nothing against the guys, but I know what that level is like. Now that we’ve gotten everybody back and everybody is buying in… it’s going to be a tough road but I really think we have the team to do it. It’s just putting the pieces all together.”