By Devan Mighton – Originally published in the LaSalle Post on Feb. 17, 2017
Photo: LaSalle Vipers’ Tyler Russell tried to blast the puck past St. Thomas Stars’ defenceman Eric Langridge during last week’s 4-0 loss.
(LASALLE, ON) – Hot goaltending is usually the difference between a championship club and an also-ran.
In the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, with the playoffs just in sight, the opponents of the LaSalle Vipers are leaning more and more on dazzling displays of goaltending dominance.
The Vipers, themselves, have benefitted from the acrobatics and consistency of the Eli Billing/Dershahn Stewart goalie tandem.
But, in two games last week, the goalie duo’s teammates were held to four goals on 100 shots – nullifying the benefits of their solid puck-stopping.
On February 8, Cooper Seedott of the St. Thomas Stars backstopped his team to a 40-save shutout win against LaSalle.
Three days later, the Strathroy Rockets’ Zack Weir blocked 56 of 60 shots, bringing the Vipers to overtime.
But in the midst of all this back-stopper distraction is the coming challenge of the second place Chatham Maroons.
The Maroons, the recent lucky beneficiaries of a Thorold Blackhawks fire sale, picked up Brendan D’Agostino, a top five scorer in their league, as well as some top talent from Strathroy and the Lambton Shores Predators.
After last weekend, the Maroons sat six points back of the first place Vipers with six games remaining.
Now, LaSalle only has two games left and must stay perfect to fend off any late rally by Chatham and keep the top seed in the Western Conference.
“We obviously want to finish as high as we can,” said head coach Bill Bowler. “We still control our own destiny.
“If it doesn’t happen, we are still confident in our group.”
At home last week, the Vipers were snake-bit by the Stars, outshooting them 40-33, yet falling 4-0.
Seedott answered every challenge for the Stars, despite a relentless attack by LaSalle throughout the night. He was awarded the first star of the game.
“I thought we played hard enough; got a lot of shots, [but] their goalie played well tonight,” said captain Nathan Savage.
“Sometimes the other team plays better than you. You’ve gotta take a loss when you take one.”
“We felt we carried a lot of the play and had numerous scoring chances. Give their goalie credit, he was the first star in our opinion,” reflected Bowler.
“It’s obvious, if you don’t score, you can’t win. It wasn’t like we had a bad game … we just lost that night and over the course of a long season that’s going to happen.”
This past Saturday, the Vipers were searching for redemption in Strathroy.
Although they found said redemption, they would have to fight tooth and nail for it, finding themselves up against another stubborn netminder.
LaSalle outshot Strathroy 60-37.
“We were fortunate to get a power play opportunity in overtime. It was just a great switch at the top between Frank Zak and Brett, and Brett let an excellent slap shot go with Cale Allen providing some traffic in front,” said Coach Bowler.
“A huge goal for our team and a great moment for Brett.”
The ever-diligent Eli Billing made 34 saves for the victory, while Weir took home first star honours for his 56-save regulation tie.
“We actually thought, according to our [stats] guy, we had more shots,” said Bowler after the game. “It happens. Other teams perform well, the goaltender performs well, you just don’t seem to bury the puck and obviously, it doesn’t go in. It’s no need for concern; it’s part of the game. Hopefully, we are saving some of these goals for these next couple games.”
“[Strathroy’s] a real tough building to win in, no matter what, so to get out with two points is huge for our team,” added the coach.
For the first place Vipers, their key stats revolve around their dedication to team discipline.
As the least penalized team in the Western Conference with 623 penalty minutes, LaSalle has the highest penalty kill rate at 87.21 per cent, leading to the lowest number of shorthanded goals against in the entire GOJHL with 22 (tied with the Niagara Falls Canucks).
The Vipers, with a post-weekend record of 35 wins, nine losses, and three regulation ties, are top three in the conference in both goals for (second with 215) and goals again (third with 130).
Five Vipers – Liam MacDougall, Manny Silverio, Nathan Savage, Daniel Beaudoin, and Brett Primeau – have cracked the 20-goal plateau this season, with Tyler Russell on the precipice.
This balanced and deadly scoring attack has pushed the Vipers to the GOJHL’s upper echelon this season.
Eli Billing, the third busiest goalie in the league (2093 minutes), has been rock solid between the pipes and anchors his team in their more chaotic moments.
Billing sits second in his conference with goals against average (2.61) and third in save percentage (.914).
LaSalle’s blue collar work ethic, disciplined play, balanced scoring attack, and consistent goaltending could very well be a recipe for post-season success.
Time will tell.
LaSalle in Chatham this Sunday, regular season finale next Wednesday at Vollmer
The Vipers are back in action this Sunday, Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. as they travel to Chatham.
They will close out their regular season next Wednesday, Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. at the Vollmer Complex against the St. Marys Lincolns.