FRIENDSHIPS formed off the ice are the difference between Newcastle Vipers pushing for this season’s play-offs and battling for the wooden spoon, according to Jaroslaw Rzeszutko.
The 24-year-old Pole is a goal away from being the first Newcastle player to 30 this season, despite breaking his wrist midway through the campaign. Rzeszutko’s five goals against Dundee Stars kept his team’s Elite League play-off hopes alive, and he is looking for more from this weekend’s games against Cardiff Devils and Hull Stingrays.
He has formed a dangerous forward line with 23-goal flatmate Toms Hartmanis and mid-season acquisition Mike Prpich, who has netted 18 times. The key, says Rzeszutko, is personal relationships.
“We’ve got a good line with Toms Hartmanis, Mike Prpich and me and we have a good understanding,” he reflects.
“This is my best season in ice hockey. My form has been good and I feel confident.
“I have a good relationship with Toms. We live together and spend most of our time together – in our apartment, in the gym, at training or when we go out.
“Now we have a much better relationship. When he has the puck I know exactly what he can do with it. And Mike Prpich has supported us well this season.
“(Player-coach) Danny Stewart has done a lot of talking with us and now we know what we should be doing whenever we’re on the ice together. We know our tactics exactly.”
It is more than simply a well-drilled unit, however.
“The team spirit is pretty good,” says Rzeszutko. “We’re good mates on the ice and off it. It’s one of the reasons we’re still hoping to qualify for the play-offs. Edinburgh have had similar problems – like us, they only have 10 or 12 guys some nights – but we’re good friends and have a good understanding.
“We always try to do our best for the club and supporters, it’s important for us. I still believe we can make the play-offs because we have six games left and we can still take 12 points. Everything is possible and I think all the guys believe we can do it.”
The Vipers have been horrendously under-manned this season. Andy Finn debuts at Hillheads tonight, having been borrowed from Northern Stars along with Callum Davies, Daniel Pye and Matt Sellars. With the Stars in Northern League action at Flintshire Freeze, Newcastle will be without the quartet in Hull.
Both Stewart and Rzeszutko have seen the benefits up front.
“In the last six or seven weeks they’re really starting to click,” says Stewart. “I definitely think chemistry is a big thing, and I think they’re playing with no pressure.
“It’s helping them to play their game and show their skills. We’ve got a little bit of everything in that line.
“When you have a big roster coaches tend to mix and match too much and when a few people have a hard time they tend to change things. If they have a game or two off, it’s going to happen. But having said that, they haven’t had too many.
“Harts and Jaro have become really close off the ice, whereas we joke about Prpich being the hermit of the team.”
While others might complain about over-work, Rzeszutko is delighted.
“It’s meant more chances on the ice because there aren’t too many breaks,” he says. “I think it’s good for everyone because all the guys love playing hockey.
“We all have a clear mind and a clear head. We just try our best every night.”
Whitley Warriors are at Telford in the English National League North One, before entertaining Fife Flyers in the Northern League tomorrow.