By Devan Mighton – Originally published in the LaSalle Post on Mar. 17, 2017
Photo: Eric Kirby, centre celebrates his first goal of the season with LaSalle Vipers teammates Liam MacDougall (9) and Manny Silverio (71) during Game 1 of their first round GOJHL playoff series against the Strathroy Rockets. LaSalle won the series 4-0. DEVAN MIGHTON / LASALLE POST
(LASALLE, ON) – Billed as the ‘Highway 3 Rivalry’, the LaSalle Vipers and Leamington Flyers hockey clubs will meet in the GOJHL playoffs for the first time since 2015.
The last ‘Battle of Essex County’, two years ago, saw the Vipers fall in six games to the Flyers in the Western Conference final.
Due to a wild card seed, the Vipers remained in the playoffs and ended up advancing to the Sutherland Cup final.
In the end, LaSalle was able to advance further than Leamington, but both teams fell to the Caledonia Corvairs in their quest for a provincial title.
This campaign, the Vipers are fresh off their first regular season pennant since relocating in 2008. They also collected their most wins in one year, in team history, with 37.
The Flyers are a strong team, but not like 2015, finishing this year with their lowest placing since the 2010-11 campaign.
A number of Vipers still remain with the team after the bitter Weir Cup loss to Leamington, one of whom is Brett Primeau – then a rookie, now a top-line forward, who reached the century mark in both games played and points this season.
In the playoffs, his play appears to be reaching new heights. During LaSalle’s four-game sweep of the Strathroy Rockets in the conference quarter-final, Primeau amassed eight goals.
The playoffs are “a different season,” said Primeau. “I find I play my best hockey in [the] playoffs. I was lucky enough to find the back of the net a couple times with some great plays from my linemates – [Daniel Beaudoin] and [Nathan] Savage.”
“Brett was … the difference,” said head coach Bill Bowler. “I can’t imagine him keeping that torrid pace, but we do anticipate him still scoring goals and contributing.”
Spreading the love around, Primeau added: “[Eli] Billing was a brick wall between the pipes for four games straight.”
“Anytime you win, there are contributions from everyone, but without a doubt, your goalie has to give you a chance. Eli did that,” agreed Bowler.
Primeau and his teammates may have swept the Rockets in four games, but Strathroy was no joke.
“We knew from the start, each game was going to be tight but if we worked hard enough we could win four straight,” said the Vipers’ sniper.
“The hard work paid off.”
“Getting the sweep is huge; to play only four games is big,” added Bowler. “Having said that, they were close games and it was a great test. Even though it may have looked like a clean sweep and an easy round, I think it was the exact opposite. I think [there were] three games with an empty net goal.”
The eighth-seeded Rockets kept every game tight, making the Vipers battle for every inch. That is to be expected in the GOJHL’s Western Conference, where there are no off nights – every team is a threat.
And, indeed, the Flyers are the next challenge.
LaSalle met them six times during the course of the season, winning four.
Leamington is fresh off beating the Sarnia Legionnaires 4-2 in their quarter-final series but gave their fans a good scare after dropping two of the final three games of their matchup.
For the Vipers, Primeau and Beaudoin both lead the way with eight points, and, as per usual, the goal scoring is well spread out.
The deciding factor for this series could rest between the pipes.
Billing sits with a 4-0 record and a .931 save percentage, while Leamington has been rotating Connor Meyerink and Noah Hedrick, with both posting excellent numbers against the Legionnaires.
But the Vipers welcome the challenge.
“Leamington and LaSalle, we know each other fairly well,” said Bowler. Adding that the larger Olympic-sized ice pad at the Highbury Canco Arena is “a bit of a challenge for our players that aren’t used to it.”
For the players, in many cases, this series pits schoolmates and former teammates against each other on the ice.
“The rivalry is fun to play in,” said Primeau. “I believe if we have four lines banging each and every night – I like our chances.”
With the series already underway this week, the LaSalle Vipers’ next home game will be on Saturday, March 18 at 7 p.m. at the Vollmer Complex.