Hokey skate

Hokey skate

Vipers caught in close playoff battle with Thunder

Red Deer teams plays tonight at the Collicutt Centre in game six of the series

  • Feb. 22, 2017 4:17 p.m.

The Red Deer Vipers’ playoff series against the Airdrie Thunder is shaping up to be a battle for the ages if the first four games are anything to go by.

In a rematch of last season’s down to the wire Heritage Junior Hockey League north division semi-final series, the Vipers and Thunder traded wins for the first four games of the best of seven series, last week, finishing the weekend in a 2-2 deadlock.

“It’s been back and forth. The games in Airdrie they’ve been able to play their way a little bit more than we’d like them to. They play a really fast game in the neutral zone and when we shut that down we’re really effective and when we can’t they score quite a bit off the rush,” said Vipers’ Head Coach J.D. Morrical of the Thunder.

At the time of writing, the home team has won every game in the series, with the Thunder taking the games played at the Ron Ebbeson Arena in Airdrie and the Vipers claiming the games played at the Collicutt.

“Home ice advantage has been big in the series, especially with the line changes and that sort of thing,” Morrical said.

That home team wins trend is in direct contrast to last year’s playoff matchup between the two teams, which saw the visiting squad take the victory in every game right up until the deciding game seven in Airdrie, which the Thunder eventually won in overtime.

“This year, I think both teams are just a little bit different, maybe a little bit better than last year too, so the matchups that we get out there are a lot more important this year. It’s been a good series again, for sure. It’s been a little heated, it’s been back and forth,” said Morrical.

Neither team has been willing to give any ground either. After the Thunder jumped out to an early series lead with a 5-4 win over the Vipers in game one last Tuesday night, Red Deer quickly responded with a 3-1 home win of their own the following evening.

Two days later, the Thunder took the series lead again with a 6-4 victory on Friday night only to have Red Deer surge back with a 3-2 triumph of their own to tie the series up again.

Morrical said in a playoff series that is so close, the key for the Vipers will be to win one of the remaining games on the road.

“I feel pretty confident with the boys at home, just on the road we have to have a better start. We’ve had really poor starts and the calls aren’t going our way in Airdrie, so we have to make sure we take that whole thing out of the equation and get a good start. I think that’s the biggest thing for us,” Morrical said, noting in order to do that it’s going to be important for the Vipers to limit Airdrie’s high flying offense.

“In Red Deer we’ve given up one and two and in Airdrie we’ve given up five and six, so that’s going to be a big difference for us.”

While Airdrie has done a good job of limiting Red Deer’s top line of Mack Differenz, Spencer Yeats and Kale Lapointe, Red Deer has benefited from a bit of secondary scoring throughout the series, particularly from their second line of Logan Linnell, Declan Johnston and Brett Hoopus.

“They’ve been on the board every game and creating every single shift they’re on the ice. It’s been great to watch and I hope they can keep it going,” Morrical said.

He also noted the Vipers’ goal tending tandem of Branden Bilodeau and Cole Sears has been excellent at keeping their team in every game.

The Red Deer Vipers were in action against the Airdrie Thunder in Airdrie on Tuesday night for game five of the best of seven series. That game was not over at press time. They return home on Wednesday night for game six. That game goes at 8 p.m. at the Collicutt Centre.