By Devan Mighton – Originally published in the LaSalle Post on Mar. 3, 2017
Photo: Vipers’ goalie Eli Billing is all smiles after clinching first place for the first time in the LaSalle era of the hockey club. Days later, Billing was named a first team all-star by the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League.
(LASALLE, ON) – It has been a season of milestones for the LaSalle Vipers hockey club.
In a year where the Vipers shattered their franchise mark for victories with 37, surpassing the record of 35 wins from the 1992-93 season (then known as the Windsor Bulldogs), they finished as GOJHL Western Conference regular season champions for the first time since their relocation to LaSalle in 2008.
It has been a season in which hometown captain Nathan Savage, a boy who grew up watching the Vipers, usurped the seven-year-old league-wide game-winning goal record.
A season where no less than four player of the month awards were handed to the likes of Liam MacDougall, Eli Billing, and Brett Banwell.
Also, a season where a leader and core member of the team, Eric Kirby, overcame a severe off-season injury and a 43-game layoff to jump into the mix of things just as the final push for the playoffs picked up heat.
“That’s a nice feather in the cap for the boys,” said Vipers’ head coach Bill Bowler on his team’s success thus far.
“The consistency and the talent level of the players; we have a good hockey club.
“We can’t say enough about the players and their work ethic and their commitment to their teammates and winning.”
And after the Vipers’ 4-1 win over the St. Marys Lincolns last Wednesday, clinching first overall in the regular season finale, the team is showing signs they could continue the trend well into the playoffs.
“[St. Marys] had our number and won the previous three meetings,” said Bowler.
“The magnitude of those two points, to solidify first place was the ultimate goal.
“And for our team to have played six real good months of hockey to get the number one seed was a special moment.”
“It feels good to be the first [Vipers] team to do that,” offered assistant captain Daniel Beaudoin.
“I think it helps out not to see teams like Chatham or London to the last round – if we make it there.
“It’s just a good accomplishment for our team, for all the hard work we’ve put in, to come first and battle to the last game.”
The GOJHL honoured the Vipers for their hard work on Monday, handing over the Western Conference’s most valuable player award, ability and sportsmanship award, and a first team all-star placement to leading scorer Liam MacDougall.
Eli Billing was also named as the first all-star team’s goalie and their team was presented the regular season championship trophy.
Now entering the playoffs as the top dog, standing in their way is the Strathroy Rockets in a best-of-seven quarter-final series that began on Wednesday.
Despite their meager 16 wins during the regular season, the eighth-seeded Rockets are not a team to be taken lightly.
“They’re a hard-working team and in a short series anything can happen,” stated Bowler. “We always respect our opponent, but we know our hands are full.”
The Vipers went undefeated in six meetings against Strathroy this season, five of the victories went down to the wire.
The Rockets have always been a dangerous team, especially when workhorse goalie Dan Davies was on his game. But now Davies is gone, opting to take the extra year of eligibility in Junior C with the Dundas Blues.
He was replaced midway through the year by the formidable Zack Weir, acquired from the London Nationals, who has picked up where his predecessor left off.
Billing will undoubtedly be answering the call between the pipes for the regular season champs.
A seasoned veteran, Billing has been dominant guarding the cage, showcasing poise and consistency whether his team is dominating or on its heels.
Where Strathroy may lack is in scoring, harbouring only two 20-goal scorers in Steve Griggs and Cody Schneider.
The Vipers, on the other hand, have received a plethora of scoring from a wide array of talented snipers.
Five Vipers cracked the 20-goal plateau, with MacDougall leading the way with 29, fleshed out by Nathan Savage, Manny Silverio, Daniel Beaudoin, and Brett Primeau.
LaSalle has a deadly and potent offense.
Defensively, the Rockets sat at a minus-48 rating at the conclusion of the season, while the Vipers have a strong cadre of D-men with the likes of Dede Cato, Brett Banwell, Zack Hoffman and Kaelan O’Flynn to lead the way.
Another thing to consider with the Rockets is their “seventh man” – their congregation at the West Middlesex Memorial Centre.
“That building, it’s a real unique building,” said Bill Bowler. “It’s going to be a tough, tough matchup.”
Strathroy’s arena is old, claustrophobic, and noisy. The Rockets’ faithful are rambunctious, protective and loyal. Taking a win in their barn can be a nerve-wracking affair.
At the other end, as proven by their lengthy home-game winning streak this year, the Vollmer Complex can be an equally tumultuous building to steal a win in, if not more so. The Vipers draw large and fierce crowds, especially in the playoffs, and the Vollmer Centre can provide a tense, stressful atmosphere for any foe.
“We play well at home; we get a ton of support,” stated Bowler. “On the road even, we have some loyal fans who like to travel with the club and it’s always refreshing to see them on the road.
“We have a lot of support and we’re going to lean on that, especially as the playoffs get rolling.”
Ultimately, like most playoff series, the success of a club often relies on discipline, a thing the Vipers have in droves.
Conference leaders in penalty kill (87 per cent) and the least penalized team in the GOJHL (659), LaSalle simply does not allow the other team to take advantage of power play situations.
There is no comparison.
The Rockets are middle of the pack in special teams and one of the more penalized clubs in the league.
There are no guaranteed wins in the GOJHL’s Western Conference, so in the end, many of these points may be moot. But, on paper, the Vipers have the edge.