Vipers 4 Wranglers 3
The Red Deer Vipers weren’t necessarily fighting for their playoff lives Tuesday at the Arena.
It just appeared that way, both with their scrappy, determined performance and the fact they were trailing the Blackfalds Wranglers 3-0 in the best-of-seven Heritage Junior B Hockey League North Division final.
The Vipers stayed alive in the series with a 4-3 win, although their season wasn’t necessarily on the line. As it turns out, the winner of each of the league’s three divisions advance — of course — with the other semifinalist being the playoff loser with the best regular-season record.
That sets up a scenario in which the Vipers will move on in the event they come out on the short end of the North final, but only if the heavily-favoured Okotoks Oilers — the league’s second-best team during the regular season, behind Blackfalds but ahead of Red Deer — knock off the Medicine Hat Cubs in the South final.
That best-of-five was knotted 1-1 heading into Tuesday’s third game.
The Airdrie Lighting have already captured the Central title and clinched a berth in the league semifinals.
With their fate still in their hands, the Vipers were intent on preventing a Blackfalds sweep Tuesday and an eighth consecutive loss — including four during the regular season — to the Wranglers this winter.
“We want to make it a close series,” said Red Deer Vipers captain JD Morrical.
“We’ve really struggled against these guys the last two years. We beat them a couple of times last year but had lost seven in a row to them this season, which can be mentally tough.
“This was our most complete game of the series. We had spurts in the previous games, but this was our best from start to finish.”
The Vipers certainly started fast, opening a 3-0 first-period lead and chasing Wranglers starting netminder Layne Swier in the process.
Swier stopped only two shots and was beaten by Lee Fraser, Colton Sutter and Ryan Blades.
“We really tried to focus on putting pucks on net because we noticed he (Swier) had been giving up rebounds,” said Morrical.
“We hadn’t been getting to the rebounds earlier in the series but tonight we did.”
The Wranglers got a second-period goal from David Jantzie, who scored while driving goaltender Jason Pohl into the net.
But defenceman Josh Christensen restored the Vipers’ two-goal cushion when he beat Tanner Schalin at 14:46 of the third period with a 30-foot wrist shot that capped an end-to-end rush.
The visitors, however, were not done, as Karson French directed a backhand past Pohl just 18 seconds later and Kyle Maas connected from a scramble in the final minute.
Pohl was stellar for the Vipers, turning aside 41 shots. Schalin was also sharp, making 23 saves after replacing Swier at the 14:54 mark of the opening frame.
The Wranglers will host Game 5, set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
Morrical suggested the Vipers will have to be even more physical than was the case Tuesday in order to bring the series back to Red Deer for a sixth game Saturday.
“We’ll have to play a little different in Blackfalds because they (Wranglers) seem to be a little more confident there. We’ll have to hit them a little more,” he said.