It has been one of the closest and hardest fought series of the Heritage Junior Hockey League post season to date.
The HJHL North Conference semi-final matchup between the Airdrie Thunder and the Red Deer Vipers has been a wild one to be sure. Four games into the best of seven series and the two powerhouses have split them right down the middle, with the Vipers claiming games one and three in Airdrie and the Thunder taking games two and four in Red Deer.
“It’s been kind of exactly what I expected. It’s been very back and forth. There’s been ups and downs of each game,” said Vipers Head Coach JD Morrical of the first four games in the series.
The two teams have been neck and neck in the North Conference standings all season long. They finished the regular season in a dead tie for points and win percentage, with Airdrie managing to claim the second place spot based solely on goal differential, so it was no surprise that the series turned out to be as close as it is.
“We started out good two of the games, they started out two of the games and that’s been the difference,” Morrical said.
In fact, in every single match-up between the two teams so far this season, the team that scored first has gone on to win the game, so an early lead has proven to be a huge advantage.
The teams, while evenly matched, have very different play styles. Airdrie is a very offensive-minded team with excellent goaltending. They have both the league’s top scorer in Clay Murray and the top goaltender in Kade Taplin. Meanwhile, Red Deer has an excellent defense. They have the second fewest goals against in the league and the fewest in the conference and their strong defensive play makes it difficult for opposing teams to get the puck into a good scoring position.
“The games that we’ve been successful – it’s been just slowing down their top line. It’s not really a secret recipe. Their top line is very dangerous and when we can control them, we win and when we can’t, we don’t win,” Morrical said.
“We’ve had a lot of success when the series is tied up. We’ve gotten the lead and we’ll be looking to do that again.”
Red Deer has yet to find themselves trailing Airdrie in the series thanks to a 3-2 win in game one in Airdrie that set the tone for the see-saw battle.
“We had a really good start. We were able to get a one-goal lead after the first period and just played our game, played physical and we were very responsible.”
Airdrie picked up their first win of the series in game two, felling the Vipers 7-4 at the Red Deer Arena. The Vipers picked up a 6-4 win in game three on Friday night before the Thunder took game four 4-3 on a late third period goal.
It’s worth noting that neither team has won a game at home yet during the series.
“I hope we can win again in Airdrie. I think we have a very good chance of it. If we do win in Airdrie, we have to mix it up. The boys, we talked about after the game, will have to do something different in the locker room to get themselves ready to go. We can’t just stick to the same thing that we’ve been doing. Something’s gotta be different. For some reason we can’t win at home anymore and that’s going to be a problem with hosting Provincials in Red Deer.”
Game five was on Tuesday night in Airdrie, but was not over at press time. Game six goes Wednesday night at the Red Deer Arena. Puck drop is at 8:30 p.m. The winner of the best-of-seven series will go on to play the Mountainview Colts in the North Conference final.