The Battle of Alberta may reign supreme in these parts but for the next few weeks, another hockey rivalry will catch hold.
It will feature a best-of-seven playoff series between the Red Deer Vipers and relocated Sylvan Lake Wranglers, who moved just down the road from Blackfalds ahead of the 2019-20 Heritage Junior B Hockey League season.
The two clubs have plenty of history at the junior B level, but a lot of the players also grew up in the local minor hockey systems, which featured a fierce rivalry between Red Deer and Sylvan Lake.
“There’s a lot of friendships between the two teams and rivalries there, the Sylvan Lake midget AA and the Red Deer have had a rivalry for 15 years and now that they’re in Sylvan, it will ramp up even more,” said Vipers coach J.D. Morrical, whose team features 12, 2001 and 2002 born Red Deer Minor Hockey products.
“Forever it Blackfalds and us, kinda top dogs in the league and now Airdrie has emerged and Sylvan has been really, really good. It’ll be a good series.”
Wranglers head coach Pat Garritty echoed a similar message about his excitement level for the series. They have eight Sylvan Lake natives born in 2001 and 2002 on the squad.
Red Deer finished the regular season second in the HJHL north division with a 24-13-1 and earned a first-round bye, while the Wranglers (23-12-2) needed to dispatch another Central Alberta rival to advance.
Sylvan Lake downed the Rockey Mountain House Rams in four games, winning the final game of the first-round series 4-1 Monday night.
“Rocky played really well. Their veteran players are good players and they gave us a lot, on a positive note, if we’re going to have success moving, forward it’s going be partly due to the lessons we learned in that series,” Garritty said.
“We play to win and we play a defence-first game and we lost sight of that at the start of the series. Once we refocused on the important things, we had a lot more success.”
The Wranglers won six straight games heading into the playoffs but lost the opener to the Rams before winning the next three.
Still, the two teams were separated by just one victory and one point in the regular-season standings, but with the Vipers well-rested, Garritty thinks his squad might be a bit overlooked heading in.
“We’re the underdog. They’ve got a lot of firepower, but we’re just happy to be in the series to show what we can do. We take care of our end, but we’ve got some guys who can put the puck in the net,” he said.
Morrical also thinks the rest helped his squad, who has battled injuries all year long and will be at mostly full strength when the puck drops.
“For us, we are finally healthy. At the start of the year, we were missing eight players, midway through we were missing seven. The lineup has changed over so much and we’re finally back to healthy,” he said.
“It’s a nice thing for a coach, we have everyone available and everyone is ready to go.”
Red Deer won the season series between the two clubs, taking three of four games and outscoring the Wranglers 9-2 in those games. Most of those games came in the early part of the season, with the last on Dec. 21. Both groups they’ve grown by leaps and bounds since then.
For Red Deer’s part, they’ll rely on speed and skill to beat the tight-defending Wranglers. Even so, Morrical recognizes that toughness will still play a large part in a seven-game series.
“Our top-end forwards are very explosive and fast and I think that’s our biggest asset, our speed,” said Morrical.
When we play fast, we’re really tough to beat. One thing for us, we have to make sure we play rough, play tough. That’s playoff hockey, it’s not always pretty.”
The series starts Saturday night in Red Deer, with puck drop at 8 p.m. at Servus Arena.