The LaSalle Vipers faced considerable adversity throughout their Western Conference Quarterfinal series against the Chatham Maroons which culminated in a Game 7 victory on Sunday afternoon in LaSalle.
Playing the first four games of the series without all-star defenseman Abdul Abouzeeni and then losing veteran blueliner Brad Vincent for Game 3 and 4, the Vipers watched as the Maroons took a stranglehold 3-1 series lead. Faced with the task of having to win three straight games, the fourth-seeded Vipers, boosted by the return of Abouzeeni and Vincent, won Game 5 at home in convincing fashion and then squeaked out a tight Game 6 in Chatham on Saturday. That set the stage for a seventh and deciding game in the series and it was a game that once again tested the Vipers strength and will.
The strange afternoon began on the game-opening goal off the stick of Vipers captain Jack Bowler who fell awkwardly following his shot that beat Chathan netminder Kevin Linker to give the home team an early 1-0 lead. Scoring for the fifth straight game in the series, Bowler remained on the ice for some time and then did not return for the rest of the first period. An even stranger incident brought further adversity later in the opening frame when hot-scoring Vipers forward Spencer Paradis was involved in a post-whistle scrum. Attempting to break up the altercation, the linesman yanked Paradis down to the ice who in the process had his leg collapse on him which resulted in a serious injury.
Evan Ferguson scored at 14:28 of the period to give the Vipers a 2-0 lead but there was an almost eerie feeling in the crowd after witnessing injuries to two of the team’s top forwards.
Bowler returned for the second period, but the bad luck for LaSalle wasn’t done yet as goaltender Matt Sbrocca left early in the period after experiencing some discomfort in his lower-body. With backup goalie Sami Molu out serving a suspension, Jr. C call-up Matt Tovell from the Lakeshore Canadiens was forced to relieve Sbrocca for the remainder of the game which further added to the nervousness in the crowd despite the two-goal lead. Seemingly needing all the goals they could get, the Vipers got a third goal from Cayden Faust at 3:38 of the period and Tovell was needed to make just a handful of saves as the two teams left the ice for the second intermission with LaSalle leading 3-0.
Lucas Fancy scored early in the third to raise the tension level and the Maroons threw a fair amount of pucks towards Tovell over the next 10 minutes, although nothing that troubled him greatly. Clinging to the two-goal lead with under five minutes to go, Maroons forward Evan Wells took a costly four-minute spearing penalty which put his team shorthanded for the rest of the game. Bowler scored his second of the night and seventh of the series into an empty-net and Ferguson added another for good measure to result in the 5-1 final score and the completion of a resilient series comeback after trailing three games to one.
Needing players to step up in the absence of others, the Vipers got outstanding games from the likes of first-year forwards Cayden Faust, Ray Hamlin and Ethan Hamelin, in addition to the stellar play of veterans Bowler and Ferguson. Abouzeeni and Vincent’s return was key in turning things around in the series, but the play of first-year defenseman Hayden Heinrich should also not be underestimated.
The team will now prepare for the Western Conference Semifinals where they will meet the London Nationals for the second straight year. The top-seeded Nationals have won four consecutive Conference titles and will enter the series as heavy favourites after beating LaSalle all six times in the regular-season.