The Red Deer Vipers will have to play a little extra hockey if they want to fulfill their goal of winning a Heritage Junior Hockey League championship this season.
After rolling the dice in a pivotal 5-4 loss to the second place Airdrie Thunder at the Collicutt Centre on Saturday night and dropping a tough 7-5 decision to the High River Flyers the following evening, the Vipers will have to settle for a third place finish in the hotly contested HJHL North Division.
The third place finish means that Red Deer will have to face off against the Ponoka Stampeders in a best of three Qualifying Round to open the HJHL post season before potentially moving on to the semi-final for a rematch with the Thunder.
Saturday night’s game against the Thunder ended up being the turning point of the weekend for the Vipers, who headed into the weekend’s games in a neck and neck race for second place with Airdrie and the Blackfalds Wranglers.
“We can’t really worry about the loss too much,” said Vipers’ Head Coach J.D. Morrical after the Saturday night game.
The stakes were high as two of the top teams in the North Division squared off in Red Deer for a game which had huge implications in the standings.
A win for Airdrie would mean they would clinch the second seed in the division and the bye through the first round of playoffs that comes with it.
For the Vipers, on the other hand, a regulation win would mean the chance to steal second place away from their longtime rivals. Anything less than that and they could risk falling to fourth.
For all intents and purposes, the playoffs were starting two games early for both teams and they showed it from the opening puck drop through to the final buzzer.
It didn’t take long for the Thunder to set the pace of the game. Airdrie’s Clay Murray opened the scoring just 58 seconds into the opening frame to give his team a 1-0 lead.
Red Deer responded, though, as Logan Linnell converted on Red Deer’s only power play of the first period to tie it up at one goal apiece.
That back and forth style continued throughout the second period as the two sides exchanged blows as they combined for five goals in the second period alone.
By the end of the middle frame Airdrie was clinging to a 4-3 lead with the Vipers in hot pursuit, peppering Taplin with 39 shots through the first 40 minutes alone.
The 21-year-old was up to the challenge though, turning aside some promising chances as he helped his team to the win.
Morrical said that while the multitude of shots was good he would have like to see his players shooting from more high scoring areas.
“We got a lot of shots but again we didn’t get the great quality shots. A lot of them from the outside and just not getting to the net.”
Still, one of those shots managed to find the twine behind Taplin late in the third as Linnell potted his second of the game to tie it up for the home team.
That raised an interesting dilemma for the Vipers.
With game tied 4-4 heading into the final minute and the Vipers needing a regulation win to have a chance to catch the Thunder in the standings, Red Deer decided to go for broke and pull their goalie in an effort to break the deadlock.
Unfortunately the move didn’t work out in their favour and with six seconds left in the game, Airdrie’s Dylan Mccuaig sealed the deal with an empty netter.
Morrical said the loss wasn’t the end of the world for the Vipers, even after dropping Sunday’s game to High River.
“I like our team right now, I really do. We’ve got to stay out of the penalty box a little bit. We got into some penalty trouble there. I think we gave up way too many power plays,” Morrical said, noting that if the Vipers can get past Ponoka in the opening playoff round they’ll be ready to take on Airdrie in the next round.
“Now they know what we’re all about. We’ve basically split the series with them all year so hopefully we can get past Ponoka and we’ll see them in the next round.”
The Red Deer Vipers are back in action on Wednesday night as they host the Ponoka Stampeders at the Collicutt Centre for the first game of a best of three series. Puck drop on that game is at 8 p.m.