This after the Vernon Vipers eliminated the Powell River Kings in four games to win the Fred Page Cup in BC and the Spruce Grove Saints taking five games to advance past the Camrose Kodiaks in Alberta. Now this isn't the last of the Camrose Kodiaks as they are the host team in the 2011 RBC Royal Bank Cup and will now go home to wait the arrival of the Pacific Region representative as well as three other national representatives.
Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that the Vernon Vipers are heading to the Doyle Cup and find themselves four wins away from playing in the National Championship. What I do find surprising is that they swept their way to the battle of BC and Alberta winning four straight over the BCHL's regular season cream of the crop - the Powell River Kings.
All four games were close with the Vipers winning three of them by a single goal and winning the first game of the series with a two goal spread. Opening in Powell River, Vernon posted 3-1 and 1-0 victories before returning home to win games three and four 4-3 and 5-4 with game four being decided in overtime.
It's so true that close games can go either way, but this has to be a feather in the cap of the Vernon Vipers and provide a huge boost in their swagger as they will host the Spruce Grove Saints for the first leg of the best-of-seven series. I'll get into the proposed schedule a little later as it involves only one change of venue and that could happen either after two or three games.
The Doyle Cup will feature familiar foes who share some similarities in how they got there ... but also some notable differences. The Vernon Vipers and the Spruce Grove Saints both won their division in the regular season and received first round byes heading into the post season. The difference here is that the Saints spent most of the season on the top or near the top in national rankings while the Vernon Vipers placed but apparently weren't seen as a threat.
The Spruce Grove Saints seemingly rolled through their opponents on route to claiming their second consecutive Enerflex Cup winning the League Championship after just thirteen games. The Saints swept both the Lloydminster Bobcats and the Fort McMurray Oil Barrons in the North and had a 2-0 series lead before suffering their first post season loss against the Camrose Kodiaks in game three.
The Vernon Vipers found themselves in slightly more intense situations and had to battle from behind against both the Westside Warriors and Salmon Arm Silverbacks. The Warriors built up a 2-1 series lead only to see the Vernon Vipers win the next three games and take the series 4-2. Against the Silverbacks, the Vipers lost both of their home games to start the series down 2-0 before defeating the post season Cinderella team in six games.
So how do these two teams stack up against each other and how do you measure that for teams that don't play outside their Leagues except for the occasional exhibition game and of course the Doyle Cup. The numbers game between these two teams will have to be the source of any benchmark even though there is an argument to be made that there are differences between the leagues.
The AJHL has a shootout in the regular season and in the post season the AJHL has a two minute break after the third period before playing a ten minute first overtime period on ice that is usually in need of some TLC from the Zamboni. There is one other difference that I want to touch on and that is the make up of each team with the AJHL utilizing up to nine 20 year olds in a game while the BCHL limits their "overagers" to six.
Other than crunching some numbers (see below for some numeric comparisons), there are intangibles that come to play in every series. Hockey operations staff often work to address different variables with the make up of their team and approach to the game. I had an opportunity to talk to Wes McLeod who finished last season on the Spruce Grove Saints roster and played in the 2010 Doyle Cup.
The Spruce Grove Saints have been a contending team for the past two seasons so I started by asking what about the Saints earns them the respect of being considered the top team in all of Canada in the National rankings.
"They are a well coached group of guys and do anything and everything for each other," replied Wes McLeod. "They come to every game like its their last and that's the moto you have to have in order to be the best. Once you make the jump from juniors to college hockey its the exact same - shorter seasons equal every game is intense."
"Bounces can go either way," was how Wes responded to the question as to what factors he thought would play a role in the Doyle Cup. "It will all come down to execution because both teams are very well coached."
So who does Wes McLeod think will make it through to the RBC Royal Bank Cup?
"I don't know, they both have a very good chance."
And that they do. Both teams have shown that they have the talent pool, depth and ability to make this a long series that might go right down to a seventh and deciding game. The interesting thing about this series schedule is that it only involves one venue change. The best-of-seven series will start in Vernon on Friday April 15th with game two on Saturday April 16th. If one team wins both of those games the series will shift to Spruce Grove, but if the series is split in Vernon a game three will be played on Sunday April 17th.
Perhaps that was the difference last year ... the series started in Spruce Grove with the Saints winning game one. The Vernon Vipers won game two forcing a third game in Spruce Grove that the Vipers also won. The remaining games were played in Vernon with the Vipers winning game four. The Saints avoided elimination with victories in games five and six, but couldn't defeat the hometown Vernon Vipers in that seventh and deciding game.
|Player Ages||Spruce Grove Saints||Vernon Vipers|
|20 year olds||10||6|
|19 year olds||5||5|
|18 year olds||5||6|
|17 year olds||3||6|
|16 year olds||1||0|
|Regular Season||Spruce Grove Saints||Vernon Vipers|
|Goals For Average||3.88||3.28|
|Goals Against Average||1.77||2.35|
|Power Play||55/266 (20.68%)||51/277 (18.41%)|
|Penalty Kill||28/276 (89.86%)||45/238 (81.09%)|
|Post Season||Spruce Grove Saints||Vernon Vipers|
|Goals For Average||3.54||3.31|
|Goals Against Average||1.62||2.69|
|Power Play||14/75 (18.67%)||14/71 (19.72%)|
|Penalty Kill||10/69 (85.51%)||13/58 (77.59%)|