The Red Deer Vipers are off to a pretty strong start to the 2015/16 Heritage Junior Hockey League season.
Currently sitting in third place in the six-team Northern Division, the Vipers have been one of the teams to beat this season in the HJHL.
“When we come with a good effort we’re very good defensively. Our forwards and defensemen. I think we have the best defense core in the league by far,” said Head Coach JD Marrical.
The Vipers right now hold a 13-5-3 record for 29 points, just five points behind the second place Mountainview Colts (17-4) and the division leading Airdrie Thunder (17-6-1).
Red Deer has been quietly chasing the HJHL’s two most explosive clubs in the Northern Division standings, keeping pace with them but never being able to break into the race for first place themselves.
But the Vipers have refused to quit, and on Saturday evening they took a big first step towards catching the two powerhouses, toppling the Airdrie Thunder 5-4 in overtime at the Red Deer Arena.
“We’ve been playing the top teams tough but we’ve always been kinda losing by one instead of winning by one. That’s the team we’re chasing to get to the top spot so it’s nice to get the two points instead of just the one tonight,” Marrical said.
The Vipers came hard out of the gates, scoring just three minutes into the game when Nick Glackin received a pass from Tyson Maton in the slot and fired it past Thunder goalie Kade Taplin to give his team an early lead.
Taplin came into Saturday’s game leading the league in nearly every goaltending category, including an impressive 2.35 Goals Against Average. The 20-year-old has also been named the HJHL’s goalie of the month for two consecutive months.
So, naturally, the rest of the first period was a goaltender’s duel.
Both sides peppered the opposing goaltender with pucks, Red Deer putting 12 shots towards Airdrie’s net in the first 20 while the visitors returned the favour by firing 11 on Vipers’ netminder Rylan Bardick.
The time on the clock continued to tick down without incident until the last 55 seconds of the period when Bardick went down with an apparent injury to his leg. He didn’t return to the game, but Marrical said it was just a minor injury.
“He’s going to be ok. It was just kind of a really bad cramp,” he said, adding that Bardick wanted to return to the game but the coaching staff decided to let him rest, leaving backup Matt Patchett to close out the game.
Marrical also confirmed that Bardick will start the Vipers’ next game in Ponoka on Wednesday night.
The second period was a lot more eventful than the first.
It was also quite a bit rougher, as just four minutes in Mark Kunitz of the Thunder took a Vipers’ player hard into the boards from behind, prompting a swift response from Vipers’ enforcer Tyson Maton.
When the dust finally settled on the play, Kunitz was assessed a five minute major and a game misconduct for boarding while Maton cooled his skates with a two minute stint in the box for roughing.
Just 40 seconds later, Dustin Spearing beat Taplin to put his team up by two. Spearman added another marker at the nine minute mark to make it 3-0 Vipers halfway through the second. It’s worth noting that both goals were assisted by Kale Lapointe, who had three assists on the evening.
The 20-year-old had seven points in just two games this weekend to earn himself the HJHL player of the week title.
But Airdrie wasn’t done yet.
They came roaring back from Red Deer’s third goal, scoring two goals just 54 seconds apart to cut Red Deer’s lead to one.
Then, at the 18:14 mark, Tyler Perkins scored his first of two goals on the night to tie it all up at one.
“It’s kind of been our struggle all year. When we get up in a game — we get up by three or even sometimes four — and they’re kind of satisfied, they don’t keep going,” said Marrical, adding the team has been getting better at holding the lead.
“We’re starting to finally learn our lesson, like we don’t let the team take the lead again; we hold them to a tie.”
The teams added a goal a piece in the third to send it into OT.
The extra period didn’t last long, though, as Matt Krusky ended it just 53 seconds in to solidify the victory for his club.
With the win, the Vipers move one point closer to jumping the Thunder and with two games left against both Mountainview and Airdrie, anything is possible.
“We just keep coming with a good effort every single night and we’ve gotta win those games. If we can win those games I think we can jump ‘em.”
Next up for the Vipers will be a road game in Ponoka on Wednesday evening to take on the Stampeders before they’re back home on Saturday to play host to the Stettler Lightning.