It’s crunch time! With only 10 or fewer games left in the regular season, points count more than ever with teams battling for home ice advantage, number one in the North Division, and that final playoff spot in the South Division.
We’ll jump right into the battle at the top of the North Division. The Bonnyville Pontiacs and Sherwood Park Crusaders collide on Saturday night at the RJ Lalonde Arena for the final time. The series between the two of them has been fantastic so far with the wins going back and forth. If both teams are successful on Friday night, the winner of this game takes sole possession of first in the North. The Pontiacs have a tough challenge in the form of the Spruce Grove Saints at the Grant Fuhr Arena. The Saints are coming off a couple of high scoring wins over the Lloydminster Bobcats (5-1) and the Drayton Valley Thunder (4-0). The last time these two matched up, Bonnyville dominated Spruce Grove scoring four goals in the opening period and then going on to win 8-1 on the road. The Saints will be looking for revenge. Spruce Grove then continues their weekend on Sunday on home ice against the Whitecourt Wolverines, who are also the Crusaders opponents on Friday night. Sherwood Park has handled the Wolverines well defeating them in each of their previous four encounters this season. The Crusaders will have to look out for Wolverines’ forward Bjorn Robinson who is currently on a career-high three-game goal streak.
Staying in the North, the Drayton Valley Thunder and the Grande Prairie Storm have a pair of big games coming up with their weekend mini-series at the Revolution Arena. The two of them are in a fight for fifth in the North, which is currently held by the Storm who are four points ahead of the Thunder with a game in hand. Drayton Valley has had Grande Prairie’s number in their previous three meetings with the Thunder coming out victorious in two of them. There is a lot on the line for both organizations which should make for a couple very exciting games to watch.
The remaining two teams from the North Division, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons and Lloydminster Bobcats, head down to Southern Alberta for the weekend. The Oil Barons start out their trip with a matchup against the Calgary Canucks who beat them earlier on in the season the Casman Centre 3-2. Max Struss got the game-winner late in the third period for the Canucks, and funny enough, he is now a member of the Oil Barons after a mid-season trade sent him north. Struss and the Barons have been in good form recently with wins coming over the Crusaders, Storm, and Wolverines putting them on a three-game win streak. As for the Canucks, they still hold onto the final playoff spot in the south despite being on a five-game losing skid. A win on Friday will push them four points ahead of the Olds Grizzlys in eighth in the south.
Fort McMurray continues their trip down south with a stop in Brooks to take on the Bandits. Brooks has been unbelievable this season losing just three games with only ten games left in their schedule. Before their game against the Barons on Saturday, they host the Lloydminster Bobcats. This could be a historic weekend for the Bandits organization and the AJHL. With a couple of wins this weekend, Brooks could extend their win streak to 25, which would be a new AJHL record for consecutive wins. The Barons and Bobcats will be looking to spoil the party in Brooks and cause an upset. Brooks has faced both of them already this season and won. Their victory over Fort McMurray came back in November as they scored four unanswered goals to win 4-1. Only a couple of weeks after, the Bandits came from behind to defeat the Bobcats 3-1 on the road. Lloydminster then continues their weekend with a couple more games in a trip to Olds to face the Grizzlys and one to the Max Bell Centre to take on the Canucks. Fort McMurray also takes on the Grizzlys Saturday night as Olds look to close the gap on Calgary in the race for the final playoff spot in the south.
Staying in Calgary, the Mustangs are heading into the week fresh off a 1-0 defeat against the Drumheller Dragons on Thursday night. A second-period goal from Scout Truman sealed the fate of the Mustangs in that one. They look to get back on track with a pair of games this weekend against the Canmore Eagles and then the Camrose Kodiaks. The three teams are in a scrap for home ice advantage in the first round. Camrose holds the final spot right now with 60 points, but the Mustangs are right on their tails with 59, and the Eagles follow with 57. Canmore also has a slight advantage with a game in hand over the two rivals. While the Kodiaks are only in action on Sunday, the Eagles also take on the Dragons following their contest against the Mustangs on Friday. Much like the Eagles, Kodiaks, and Mustangs, Drumheller is looking to lock down home ice in the first round. Currently in third with 62 points, the Dragons have found themselves on a bit of roller coaster and haven’t won back-to-back games since December 7-8 when they beat the Okotoks Oilers and Calgary Mustangs. In the hope of hanging onto third in the division they’ll be wanting to gain that consistency back this weekend. Their first opportunity to do so comes on Friday against the Oilers who are coming off a midweek 4-0 loss to the Bandits.
Okotoks has been one of the hottest teams in the AJHL as of late, winning 12 of their last 13 games, which is fantastic form to find yourself in as we edge closer to the post-season. As mentioned, they face the Dragons on Friday night in their lone game of the weekend. This series has been great to watch with the Dragons having won three of five meetings. The last time they met was back in December when the Oilers won 4-1 on home ice. A lot has changed for both teams since that game.