By Devan Mighton – Originally published in the LaSalle Post on Dec. 16, 2016
Photo: LaSalle’s Manny Silverio works the puck along the boards against Chatham on Dec. 7. DEVAN MIGHTON / LASALLE POST
In what may have been the toughest week of the season so far, the LaSalle Vipers junior hockey club defeated three key opponents and surged to a spacious lead in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Western Conference rankings.
Boasting a record of 23 wins, 4 losses, and 2 overtime defeats to begin the week, the Vipers just finished off a 3-0 run against the Chatham Maroons, Sarnia Legionnaires, and London Nationals.
LaSalle has benefitted from a consistent, wide array of scorers, with only Liam MacDougall cracking the league’s top five in any offensive statistical category.
Also, the indomitable play of goaltending veteran Eli Billing has been off the charts as of late.
With his 2.38 goals against average and a .922 save percentage so far this season, Billing was recently named goalie of the month for November in his conference.
The GOJHL also honoured LaSalle’s Brett Banwell with the defensive player of the month award.
Banwell has racked up 15 points with the club so far this year, including four power play assists and a game-winning goal.
Coach Bill Bowler had plenty of good things to say of the duo.
“Brett [Banwell] is a huge part of our defence core,” said the coach. “His consistent play and the intensity he plays with; he takes each and every shift real serious. He takes it personal if he’s on the ice and we get scored on. He’s just a real competitive player that defends extremely well.”
Bowler was quick to point out that he is happy, so far, with Billing and rookie Dershahn Stewart’s play in net.
Billing, a third year veteran, has led by example.
“Eli [Billing] has carried the load this year,” Bowler explained. “[He] has performed extremely well and since we’ve known Eli, the hard work he puts in and the type of person and player he is, we fully expected Eli to be an elite goalie in our league.”
On Dec. 7, Billing’s impermeable tending and clutch goals from Daniel Beaudoin and Brett Primeau allowed for the Vipers to get the upper hand on their territorial rivals from Chatham.
Chatham’s Alec Mackenzie scored the lone goal of the first but was answered by Beaudoin early in the middle act, followed by Primeau with three minutes left in the frame.
Beaudoin extended the lead early in the third, and despite a power play marker from Braden Henderson to bring the Maroons back within one, LaSalle held on to the 3-2 win in front of their hometown, Wednesday night crowd.
Billing was victorious in net, turning away 27 of 29 incoming shots.
Brendan Johnston was less fortunate at the opposing end, stopping 21 of 24.
The Vipers have played a gritty, well-rounded style of play this year and it has worked for them.
LaSalle’s disciplined play has set them apart from their opponents, taking, by far, the lowest amount of penalty minutes in their conference and for it, rewarding themselves with the highest scoring output in the west as well.
“Anytime you can pressure them in their zone, get it deep and start gunning away, it makes a difference come the third period,” said Beaudoin after the win.
Another remarkable statistic for the Vipers is the fact they have not lost a home game since Sept. 14, putting together a string of 13 consecutive victories in front of the hometown faithful.
“Our leadership makes it well known that we don’t lose at home,” commented Beaudoin. “We take pride when we are at home and playing in front of our fans. Every Wednesday, we come and make sure we are battling and representing LaSalle.”
Coach Bowler could not agree more.
“I think we’ve got a decent hockey club and I honestly think guys like playing here in LaSalle,” said the bench boss. “The fact that we get great support, you know our players don’t want to let down not only themselves or their teammates, but the fans and family and friends that show up.”
The next night, the Vipers were on the road to face Sarnia and walked away with a 7-4 win after a chippy, spirited affair.
MacDougall led the way in scoring, potting a pair. Meanwhile, Beaudoin, Zack Hoffman, Tyler Russell, Maddux Rychel, and newcomer Kaelen O’Flynn each picked up a single.
Returning fire were Zach Vanderwal, Ethan Dupont, Joey Zappa, and Jake Vince for the Legionnaires.
LaSalle’s Dershahn Stewart was solid in net, backstopping his team with 28 saves, while Sarnia’s Jorgen Johnson stopped 20 of 26 in defeat.
“We came out and had a good start, but give Sarnia credit,” said Coach Bowler. “There is no quit in their team. They fought hard, back and made it 6-4, had us on the ropes, but we were lucky to hang on and get an empty-netter to solidify the win.”
On Saturday, a Herculean effort from Billing and getting the upper hand in a see-saw scoring battle allowed the Vipers to walk away with the win against the defending conference champions from London.
Captain Nathan Savage scored the only goal of the opening frame to start LaSalle’s second consecutive road game.
In the second, Manny Silverio ripped an early power play marker to extend the lead.
The Nationals evened the score with a man-up goal from Ethan Nother and a snipe by Adam Sinclair.
Before the period could end, Rychel retook the lead late, to give the Vipers a 3-2 advantage into the second break.
Midway through the final stanza, Nother netted another goal to knot the game at three, but Primeau had other things in mind, ripping the mesh only half a minute later in what ended up being the winning goal.
Billing was peppered with 45 shots in his team’s 4-3 triumph, stopping 19 of 20 in the final act.
His counterpart, London’s Cameron Zanussi, made 23 saves in the game.
“It’s very rare that you go into [London’s Western Fair Arena] and get two points,” said Bowler on Monday. “They have a very strong team… we were able to score one extra goal and there is no question that they threw a lot of rubber at [Billing].” He added, “They threw everything at us and we found a way to hold off.”
New to the Vipers is defenceman Kaelan O’Flynn.
O’Flynn comes to LaSalle after starting the season with the Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Burlington Cougars.
He also spent the two previous seasons with the Kemptville 73’s of the Central Canada Hockey League, near Ottawa.
The game against the Nationals marked O’Flynn’s fifth match with the Vipers and he has already made an impact.
With a goal against Sarnia and four more assists since arriving, he has averaged a point per game and appears to fit quite well with the Viper back-end.
“We ran into some injuries and we were looking for a body,” explained Coach Bowler. “It’s been a very good fit. Kaelan [O’Flynn]’s come in, he’s a very good puck mover, he’s helped our power play, and he’s fit in nicely with the guys off the ice as well.”
The busy schedule continues for the hometown crew as they prepare for their short holiday break.
Tomorrow afternoon, LaSalle returns to the road for a rematch with the Nationals. The next day they will be in Chatham for a rendezvous with the Maroons.
The Vipers’ next home game will take place on Dec. 21 at the Vollmer Recreation Complex, at 7 p.m., as they host the Lambton Shores Predators.