2015 Gas Drive AJHL Playoff Preview

The 2015 Gas Drive AJHL Playoffs begin Wednesday night with the Viterra AJHL South Division match up between Drumheller and Olds.  All other best-of-five Round One series will begin on Thursday night across the province.

Drumheller Dragons (4) vs. Olds Grizzlys (5)

A strong season in the Viterra AJHL South Division saw the top four and bottom four teams split by a wide margin, though the first round matchup between the fourth-seeded Drumheller Dragons and fifth-seeded Olds Grizzlys will be as close as things get between both halves in the first round.

Olds made their statement early in the season by landing goaltender Jesse Gordichuk and coveted trade piece Jade McMullen. As the playoffs approach, those pieces have yet to fully deliver for the Grizzlys, who quickly fell out of contention for a spot in the top four in the final two months of the season.

What the Grizzlys do have on the Dragons is a 4-2 record in the season series, featuring a win on the Dragons’ home ice November 7.

The meeting between the Grizzlys and Dragons will see both teams utilize their road power plays, which sit first and second in the league. The Grizzlys will also be itching to put their home power play to work, which finished the league ranked fourth overall at 23.13%.

The Dragons meanwhile, will be eyeing a return to the AJHL Final after being overwhelmed by the Spruce Grove Saints in four straight games last year.

Key parts from that Dragons team, including forwards Dakota Zaharichuk, Mitchell Cook and Hunter Mills are now in their final year of junior hockey and will be seeking nothing short of a repeat of last year’s success.

In net, Dragons goaltender Curtis Skip had an up and down year of his own between the pipes, sporting a 14-15-2 record while recording three shutouts and posting a .912 save percentage to accompany a 2.74 goals against average.

Like the North Division’s fourth and fifth place series, the contests between the Grizzlys and Dragons will be a close affair.

Brooks Bandits (2) vs. Calgary Mustangs (7)

In what turned out to be the most exciting battle for a playoff spot in the regular season, the Calgary Mustangs went 6-3-1 in the month of February to claim the last playoff spot in the South Division, setting up a date with the Brooks Bandits.

The Bandits took all six meetings in the season by a combined score of 30-11 and it’s hard to imagine the South Division’s best offence having any difficulty scoring in this series.

On the Mustangs’ side, Joe Mahon led the team in scoring, collecting 14 goals and 45 points in 50 games. Teammate Vincent Paquette finished the season on a hot streak, scoring three goals and recording seven points in his final six games.

They’ll have to contend with the long list of offensive threats in Brooks, which includes the league’s top scorer in Austin Plevy, who scored 29 goals and totalled 92 points in his final junior season, leading a list of six Bandits players who scored a minimum of 20 goals on the season.

In net, the Bandits have a pair of options in Michael Fredrick and Josh Davies. Fredrick finished his AJHL regular season career with a strong 105-20-11 record, adding 13 shutouts to his cause, but Davies ended up with the better record on the season, posting a 24-6-1 mark with four shutouts to begin his Bandits career.

Facing the tall task of stopping the Bandits’ offence rests on the shoulders of Mustangs’ goaltender Ravi Dattani, who set personal bests in save percentage with a .907 mark. Dating also faced a career-high 1886 shots and logged almost 3000 minutes between the pipes for the Mustangs.

The Mustangs have been a fun team to watch in February, but the Bandits aren’t exactly about to let up because of it.

Fort McMurray Oil Barons (4) vs. Sherwood Park Crusaders (5)

In what could be the tightest battle of the first round, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons and Sherwood Park Crusaders will meet  in the AJHL Gas Drive Cup playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season, when the MOB dispatched of the Cru in a five-game series.

This time around, the two teams are almost neck-and-neck for each major statistic. The season series stayed true to the form of the close battle, as the home team won all six games in regulation for the season series. Adding to that, each team has shut their opponents out at least once, won a game by doubling up their opponent or enjoyed a big night offensively en route to victory.

Both teams will have to battle their own consistency issues throughout the series. The MOB have played up and down all season, keeping teams guessing as to which MOB team will show up. For the Crusaders, a 10-15-5 road record leaves some significant room to improve upon heading into the playoffs.

A pair of key injuries to Edmonton-area players in Sherwood Park’s Tommy Nixon and St. Albert’s Luc Lalor could have major effects to each team. Nixon’s return to action from injury creates an issue in the Cru’s crease where Zac Kalssen has filled in admirably during Nixon’s absence.

Lalor’s return to the MOB this season has seen the Cornell-bound forward notch five goals and 15 points in 21 games and play a key role on the team’s second line. Without Lalor, the MOB face a hole in their lineup.

Special teams will also be a focal point in the series. The Cru’s home power play (14.29%) and road power play (11.45%) rank second-last in the league for both figures. The MOB meanwhile have kept themselves in the middle of the league for penalty kill and power play stats, keeping the guessing game open to which way it could lean. 

by Robert Murray

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Lloydminster Bobcats (2) vs Whitecourt Wolverines (7)
It's a rematch from last year's playoffs, as the Lloydminster Bobcats and Whitecourt Wolverines renew their playoff rivalry in the opening round of the playoffs. Lloydminster finished in second place in the North Division, clinching the spot in the last game of the regular season, while the Wolverines had to settle for the seventh seed.

Last year the Wolverines had the Bobcats on the ropes, holding a 2-1 series lead before Lloydminster came back in overtime in Game 4 and won the series at home in Game 5. With that in the minds of both teams, it should be a exceptionally close series, despite the fact that the two teams are separated by 16 points in the standings.

Despite their low standing, Whitecourt did manage to score the fourth most goals in the division with 181, only five back of the Bobcats. However, the biggest difference in the series may come from the Wolverines inability to stop the puck as much as the Bobcats, as Whitecourt gave up the second most goals in the North Division with 206, while the Bobcats were able to ride Devin Green and his league leading seven shutouts for the most the season, allowing the second least amount of goals in the division with 155.

In six meetings this year, the Bobcats had the slight edge with a 3-2-1 record, however, come playoff time, the overtime loss counts just as much as a regular loss, so the two are even heading into the first round. In the standings it looks like a mismatch, but digging deep, the Wolverines and Bobcats have many similarities, and a second round appearance could come down to who keeps the puck out of their net the most.

Bonnyville Pontiacs (3) vs Drayton Valley Thunder (6)
The two hottest teams in the month of February will hope for just as good of a March in the playoffs. Drayton Valley comes into the playoffs having lost their last three games, however, they won their previous eight straight games dating back to January 31 and were 9-2-2 in the last month of the season.

Bonnyville, on the other hand, never let a game slip without a point, as they went 7-0-4 in February, vaulting them into third spot in the division in front of Fort McMurray.

The Pontiacs have two of the leagues top 10 scores, as Dillan McCombie finished fifth with 20 goals and 63 points, while Kyler Hehn finsihed in seventh with 28 goals and 60 points. Bonnyville finished with the second most goals in the division with 197, while the Thunder scored only 161, the second lowest. Trevor Poirier led the thunder with 23 goals and 41 points, good enough for 45th in league scoring.

Bonnyville will roll with Troy Trombley in net. In 19 starts, Trombley compiled a 12-3-4 record, and he has only got better with time, having not last a game in the AJHL since January 21. Since then he has a record of 8-0-3.

Drayton Valley's Marc Olivier Daigle was one of the most worked goalies in the AJHL with 45 starts, and will need to be on his game to not only slow down the high powered offence of the Pontiacs, but also to give his team a chance against a wall in the Bonnyville net.

Okotoks Oilers (3) vs Canmore Eagles (6)
With third spot secured for awhile, Okotoks has been playing with the big boys in the AJHL South Division. They are 38 points in front of the Canmore Eagles in the standings, and were 5-1 against the Eagles in their six meetings during the regular season.

Canmore is going to rely heavily on Connor Wilson to lead the charge into Oil country, as the fourth highest scorer in the AJHL led the Eagles with 25 goals and 67 points. Canmore outscored the Oilers by 11 goals this season, but it was the holes in net that was their undoing, as the Eagles allowed 230 goals, the second most in the division.

Canmore is also scoring 20 per cent of the time on the power play, but Okotoks was right behind them with 19.85 per cent.

While the Oilers didn't have as high of a scorer as the Eagles, where they make up for it is in depth. 11 players on the Oilers this year had 20 points or more, while they also housed three 20-plus goal scorers. And in goal, Nic Renyard posted a 30-8-3 record, and was the most winningest goalie in the AJHL. Canmore goalie Ryan Ferguson started a league high 53 games, and allowed more than three goals a game. Constant pressure could be the undoing for the Eagles, who will have to find a way to stop not just the top lines of the Oilers.

by Andrew Brethauer