The Red Deer Vipers are about to find out how important one mid-season victory can be.
The Heritage Junior B Hockey League club has struggled mightily to find any resemblance of consistency, and have set up shop in the bottom three spots of the North Division for most of the season.
Last Saturday they finally put 60 minutes together and registered the biggest upset of the season, finally putting a blemish on the Blackfalds Wranglers regular-season record with a 5-1 win.
For a team stuck in a 12-month funk, players and coaches are hoping it can become a rallying point.
“It was huge because it sends a message to the rest of the league that we are for real, we can play with anybody … and that raised a lot of eyebrows on other teams,” said Vipers forward Cole deGraaf. “It also lets Blackfalds know in future games that we’re not just going to roll over and die, we are for real.”
The next game, however, encapsulated their season, as they came out flat on Monday and were nearly upended by the last-place Ponoka Stampeders at the Arena. That game itself showed in one stroke how haywire the team can be and the next how disciplined they can play — effectively splitting the contest into two 30-minute halves.
After opening their season 2-1-0, they dropped the next five of their next six games to close out October. In November, they failed to gain much traction, going 4-4-0, and December was looking quite dark until winning their last two games and finishing the month 3-3-0.
“At the beginning of the year I thought we were going to be right at the top of the division or the league, but it’s just been 100 per cent poor efforts,” said head coach JD Morrical. “To start the season we blew six leads and I don’t think our confidence level was there. We just couldn’t seem to buy a win.”
The uneven effort by the players has not been helped by struggles in the crease as none of their three goalies has grabbed hold of the starters job despite a season-long open competition. Rookie Rylan Bardick is 4-5-0 and has been the best of the three with a 3.96 goals against average, while incumbent Klay Munro has a 2-4-0 mark with a 4.18 G.A.A. and a 0.893 save percentage. Rookie Lane Congdon rounds out the group with a 4-5-0 record, a 5.59 G.A.A. and a .840 save percentage.
“We still haven’t really found our No. 1 guy yet,” said Morrical. “I think the competition needs to be a little bit higher, they have to take it more seriously, all three of them. No one has really taken the reins and run with it. We’re prepared to ride a guy from here on in and no one has really stepped up yet.”
Offensively the Vipers have been sound, scoring 101 goals in 24 games, a 4.02 clip. They have been led by Cole deGraaf whose 41 points (25-16-41) has him ranked eighth in the league. He has been paired lately with Kale Lapointe (10-18-28) and Dustin Spearing (9-14-23) to form a formidable first line.
“Spearing’s really fast where Kale and I are bigger guys and don’t have the foot speed so he helps us get down the ice,” said deGraaf. “Kale’s a really offensive player and has a good mind for the game and can find you anywhere on the ice. It just makes playing with him really easy.”
After that, Justin Corbett has 24 points (10-14-24), Nick Glackin has 23 (10-13-23) and Jonathan Finnigan has 15 (6-9-15) to lead all defencemen.
Chemistry and consistency continues to be the Vipers’ biggest concern as the calendar turns over to 2015.
They ended the 2013-14 season in disarray as former captain Morrical was brought in just before the playoffs to try an bring the dressing room back together. It has been a struggle since then. But with this season’s trade deadline of Jan. 10 fast approaching, he says he is standing pat with the club he has.
“I like the team we’ve got. I like how they’re gelling, it’s just them putting in the effort,” he said.
There is still time for the Vipers to climb back up the standings, but they do not have any more time to waste with off nights and lacklustre efforts.
Six of the seven teams in each division make the post-season with the top two seeds in getting a bye. After the first round the teams are re-seeded for the division semifinals.
“I’d really like to get into third spot in our division, we’re fifth right now I don’t want to run into Blackfalds in the first round, I’d rather see them in the North final,” said Morrical. “We’ve got 14 games left, I expect to win 11 or 12 of them . . . I think if we come with an effort that we can win every one of them, but I’d be happy with 12.”
The Vipers return to action Jan. 3 versus the visiting Three Hills Thrashers.