With seven of the first 10 series in the 2016 Gas Drive Alberta Junior Hockey League Playoffs finishing with sweeps, the first month of the post-season has rolled on smoothly, whittling the 14 teams that started the journey March 10th down to four teams.
Spruce Grove, Lloydminster, Brooks and Camrose stand as the remaining teams in the league playoffs with both series set to pit four high-octane offences against each other with a quartet of strong goaltending tandems trying to shift the balance of power in each series to the defensive side of the puck.
Viterra AJHL North Division Championship
(1) Spruce Grove Saints vs. (3) Lloydminster Bobcats
Season Series: The season series was split 3-3 between the two clubs with the Bobcats winning one of their games in a shootout. As two of the top teams in the Viterra AJHL North Division, the Saints and Bobcats battled throughout the year to see who would reign supreme. After both teams breezed through their previous opponents with series sweeps, this series may provide both with the challenge they need as they have their sights set on contending for a Royal Bank Cup later this spring.
The Saints would have a longer road to travel than the Bobcats do, but even after a 12-day layoff, they wasted no time in getting back to form, pelting the Sherwood Park Crusaders with 24 goals in 12 periods of play.
One interesting note from the season series is that the Saints always won by a minimum two-goal margin while the Bobcats only ever won by a one-goal margin, something that’ll be important to keep an eye on as the series plays out.
Playoff-wise the Bobcats will be looking to win their first ever post-season game against the Saints. The Saints previously swept playoff series with the Bobcats in 2005, 2008, and 2011. Although the two clubs had to wait two years longer than their usual three-year gap between playoff series, the Bobcats appear ready to break that goose plaguing them from previous match ups.
Offensive Threats: As good as the goaltenders on both sides of this series have been, any fan of goals is going to want to watch this series very closely. Eight of the top 20 playoff scorers in the AJHL post-season — six for Lloydminster and two for Spruce Grove — will square off in this series.
Brett Smythe and Eric Benshadle sit second and fourth respectively in league playoff scoring and are two of five Bobcats players averaging a point per game or better through the first seven games. It’s understandable to see only two Saints players in the top 20 for scoring, considering they’ve only played four games, yet it’s also surprising at the same time. Brandon Biro is humming along as usual with four goals and eight points in those four games while his teammate Tyler Busch sits one point behind him.
Net presence: Matthew Murray and Ravi Dattani split the duties in the second round of the playoffs, with both doing their best to outshine the teammates in front of them. For Murray, he allowed one goal on 24 shots in game two against Sherwood Park, rebounding with a 29-save shutout in the fourth game of the series to send the Crusaders to a second-round exit. Murray has also allowed one goal or less in 10 of his 15 AJHL playoff games, another statistic to add emphasis to the statement that the 18 year-old is pretty good at goaltending.
Perhaps a mild concern for Murray and the Saints heading into the series is his performance Jan. 29 and Oct. 7 against the Bobcats, where he let in five goals both times, but it once against seems like another wrong he’s determined to right.
Considering he’s been one of the factors in getting them to this point, Alex Leclerc will likely see the bulk of, if not all, the minutes in net this series. His 7 playoff wins tie him with Camrose Kodiaks goaltender Patrick Gora for first in the league this post-season while his 1.90 goals against average ranks him first amongst goaltenders to play over 400 minutes this post-season. Leclerc also owns the best save % for goalies facing more than 100 shots in the playoffs as well, stopping 160 of 173 shots.
Having Leclerc at the top of his game could tip the series in the Bobcats’ favour. But just incase he’s needed, backup Pierce Diamond has proven himself to be more than capable in net for the Bobcats this season and has had his first taste of playoff action already, though that’s amounted to just 25:10 of action.
Quirky stat: All four goaltenders entering this series have wins this season against the opposing team, but Saints backup Ravi Dattani is the only one to not have one with his current team. Dattani picked up his win over the Bobcats Nov. 7, 2015 as a member of the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, stopping 37 of 38 shots in a 3-1 victory.
There’s no solid reason to doubt Saints goaltender Matthew Murray, but if he does, Dattani has shown the Saints he can play in their system and play well against the Bobcats, a trump card head coach Jason McKee may be happy to have if required.
As for the Bobcats, the host team has made it to the championship game 10 times since the first Royal Bank Cup and the Bobcats certainly have the skills to become the 11th host to accomplish that feat in May. The host team is also subsequently 5-5 in those championship games, with the record evening out from the Portage Terriers’ victory last year.
Eight of those times though, the host team has won their league championship. The record of those 10 Royal Bank Cup host teams who played in the final and won their league is a so-so 4-3, with the 2005 Weyburn Red Wings the only host team to with a Royal Bank Cup after not winning their league as well.
Spruce Grove: 47 powerplay goals scored in 226 opportunities (20.80%), seventh in the AJHL, (9-29 in the season series)
Lloydminster: 55 powerplay goals scored in 260 opportunities (21.15%), sixth in the AJHL, (5-30 in the season series)
Spruce Grove: 32 powerplay goals allowed on 231 opportunities (86.15%), third in the AJHL, (25-30 in the season series)
Lloydminster: 37 powerplay goals allowed on 238 opportunities (84.45%), sixth in the AJHL, (20-29 in the season series)
Viterra AJHL South Division Championship
(1) Brooks Bandits vs. (2) Camrose Kodiaks
Season Series: The season series was split 3-3 between the two clubs with the Bandits winning one matchup in the shootout. The Kodiaks and Bandits have met five times since the 2005 season with the Kodiaks holding a 3-2 edge in series victories. The last two series have gone the distance, with both teams winning seven-game series, the Bandits taking last year’s matchup to win the South Division title.
This time around, the Kodiaks are the lower-seeded team and will be trying to return the favour. The last victory for the Kodiaks in Brooks came on Nov. 21, 2015 by the same 5-2 score the Bandits eliminated the Kodiaks with last season.
Offensive Threats: Just like the North Division Final, this series will be brimming with offensive firepower. The Bandits topped the league with 306 goals this season and have kept up their offensive skills in the postseason with 23 goals in four games against the Canmore Eagles.
The Kodiaks finished the regular season with 250 goals, fourth-best in the league. Bringing that offensive success into the playoffs, Camrose has tallied 36 goals in first eight games and will be looking for more come Friday’s opening game in Brooks.
The Kodiaks will attempt to counter the Bandits’ explosive offence with their own offensive weapons, namely Cole McBride, Paul Lovsin, Nelson Gadoury and Mackenzie Bauer. All four sit in the top six of the league for playoff scoring, with Bauer’s five goals leading one category and McBride’s 16 points leading another.
When it comes to analyzing the Bandits’ offence, the Kodiaks will likely be picking their own poison. Five players finished with at least 60 points and 13 came in above 40 points during the regular season. The additions of players like Landon Welykholowa, Ty Mappin and Tristan Thompson have only added to the headaches for their opponents.
Net presence: With the way the Bandits’ offence has clicked this year, goaltending could understandably be seen as an afterthought to the Bandits. Striving to have the best of the best though, the Bandits have arguably the strongest tandem in the post-season with Garret Hughson and Josh Davies. Hughson posted three shutouts in a four-game sweep of the Eagles while also maintaining a 2-1 record in three games against the Kodiaks this season.
If needed, Davies is still a dependable option between the pipes, but for now, the crease belongs to Hughson, who is taking full advantage of the situation.
At the opposite end of the ice will be Patrick Gora, who was one of the Kodiaks’ difference-makers in series wins against the Olds and Okotoks. Making his playoff debut, Gora has compiled a 7-1 record through the first two rounds, allowing two goals or less in every win.
Gora is also familiar with the Bandits, starting all six games in the regular season series. Another performance similar to those that came in his three wins versus the Bandits (.916 sv %, 3.33 goals against average) would help the Kodiaks give themselves a legitimate chance in the series.
Quirky stat: Given the recent history between the two sides, a look into their recent playoff history, this series should provide a healthy mix of large victories and close decisions. Of the 26 playoff games between the Kodiaks and Bandits since 2009, 10 have been decided by a single goal.
Home-ice also hasn’t been a guarantee in the past two series either. Where the Bandits closed out the series on the road in 2015, the Kodiaks did the same to the Bandits in 2011. In last year’s series, the home team won games one through four, then promptly lost games five through seven.
In the previous meeting, the Kodiaks and Bandits split the first four games by stealing a victory in each other’s arena. The home team then won the next two games before the Kodiaks took the seventh game at the Centennial Regional Arena.
Brooks: 78 powerplay goals scored in 341 opportunities (22.87%), fourth in the AJHL, (3-37 in the season series)
Camrose: 58 powerplay goals scored in 243 opportunities (23.87%), second in the AJHL, (8-29 in the season series)
Brooks: 46 powerplay goals allowed on 298 opportunities (84.56%), fifth in the AJHL, (21-29 in the season series)
Camrose: 43 powerplay goals allowed on 309 opportunities (86.08%), fourth in the AJHL, (34-37 in the season series)
By Robert Murray