2017 North Division Round One Preview

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The Alberta Junior Hockey League will open the 2017 Gas Drive AJHL Playoffs on Thursday.  Here is a Round One preview of the Viterra AJHL North Division:

(2) Whitecourt Wolverines vs. (7) Grande Prairie Storm

Season Series: Whitecourt went 5-1 in the season series, outscoring the Storm 31-13 in the process. That couldn’t help the Wolverines from going undefeated against the Storm however, dropping a January 11 contest by a 5-4 score. Whitecourt also won a 3-2 overtime game in Grande Prairie back in November. Other than the two one-goal games, the season series directly favoured the second-place Wolverines who scored five or more goals in four of the games and earned two shutouts.

On the Wolverines end, Mitch Lipon led all Wolverines players with nine points against the Storm while Morgan Messenger scored the most goals against the Storm from the Wolverines’ side with five goals in the season series. For the Storm, it should come as no surprise that Michael Clarke led all Storm players with six points against the Wolverines, though players like Adam Wilson and Nathan Bizeau also chipped in with solid offensive efforts.

How did the last playoff matchup go: Back when they were the St. Albert Steel, the Storm incredibly won three games in overtime to take the best-of-five series. Clayton Goodall’s only goal of the post-season that year proved to be huge as it was the series-winner. The Storm also managed to hold future NHLer Daniel Carr of the Montreal Canadiens off the scoresheet in all five games.

Motivation: After losing the chance at a first-round bye in the final period of the regular season, the Wolverines will be out to assert their presence as the top team in the North Division. Also looming over the franchise are playoff disappointments from past seasons. Their overall playoff record since moving to Whitecourt is 14-17, with a 3-4 record in those seven playoff series.

This is uncharted territory for the Storm, who are making their first trip to the post-season since the 2012-13 season. That hasn’t guaranteed success either, with the Storm’s last playoff series win coming in the 2009-10 season over the Lloydminster Bobcats. The long story of it is that the Storm haven’t experience playoff success in several years, though it’s still weird to remember that they have the second-shortest AJHL championship drought next to the Spruce Grove Saints.

X-Factor: For the Wolverines, having the insight of the winningest coach in AJHL history could tip the scales in their favour this post-season. Having raised the trophy as league champion back in the 2005-06 season, it would be a feather in Thibodeau’s cap to win another title and go in pursuit of a Royal Bank Cup title in his record-breaking season.

For the Storm, Michael Clarke will be the go-to player for their offensive success. His 31 goals is the most by any Storm player since Tanner Fritz tallied 31 in the 2010-11 season. The scoring drops off after Clarke, with only four other players finishing in double digit goals. How their offence translates to the post-season will determine how long the Storm stay alive.

(3) Spruce Grove Saints vs. (6) Drayton Valley Thunder

Season series: The Spruce Grove Saints won the first five games of the season series before the Thunder captured the last regular season meeting in mid-February. That win by the Thunder was historic because other than a rare tie, the win was the first for the Thunder at the Grant Fuhr Arena since September 13, 2006. Obviously, the Thunder would prefer to not have another decade between wins in Spruce Grove, a feat they’ll need to accomplish at least once over the next week in order to give themselves a shot at winning the series.

Garan Magnes led all Saints skaters in goals against the Thunder this season with five, though Josh Harris had the most points, racking up a goal and six assists throughout the season series. Countering for the Thunder, Nolan Krewusik and Max Salpeter each had three points in the season series while no Thunder player scored more than a single goal against the Saints.

How did the last playoff matchup go: Riding the high of a three-game upset over the Lloydminster Bobcats, the Thunder headed into their series against the Saints with optimism, only to be crushed in four straight games by a combined score of 24-11. The meeting before that wasn’t exactly one to remember for the Thunder either as they blew a 3-0 series lead against the Saints, who rattled off four straight wins, winning game seven in overtime on a goal from Joel Henituik.

Spruce Grove’s track record speaks for itself with four league championships since 2010 and emerging from the competitive North Division field to play for the league championship in seven of the past eight seasons. Drayton Valley last stood at the top of the AJHL in the 2001-02 season and while the odds may be stacked against them, they’ve certainly proved themselves to be a surprising club at times this season, beating the best teams in the North Division.

Motivation: The Saints had their shot at the first three-peat in AJHL history since the early 1990s disrupted by the Brooks Bandits in the 2015-16 season. That was also partial payback for the Saints ruining the Bandits’ shot at a three-peat of their own, but those are the extent of the Saints’ issues is wondering how many titles they can string together in a row. A change in head coach didn’t slow down the Saints at all as they still finished within 10 points of the first place Fort McMurray Oil Barons and there’s reason to believe they can win the division again if they set their mind to it.

For the Thunder, playoff heartache has surrounded the franchise for the past decade and they’d like to correct things as quickly as possible. They went from the heydays of the late 1990s and early 2000s to failing to qualify for the post-season for four straight seasons. Once they made it back to the playoffs, they’ve been dealt four straight first round exits.  Their competition in those four series have produced some major firepower, but just two playoff wins since the 2012-13 season is likely not enough to satisfy the franchise’s hopes for success.

X-Factor: Brett Smythe spent two and a half seasons with the Thunder and will be looking to begin his final playoff run in junior hockey by beating the team he started out with. Smythe set career highs in goals (23) and points (47) this season, making him one player to watch for the Saints. On the blue line, a pair of offensive producers in Jordan Thomas and Ian Mitchell will handle the duties of generating chances from the defensive side of the puck for the Saints.

What has always been impressive about the Saints is their ability to grind goals from every corner of their line up, regardless of the names on the back of each jersey, something they’ll be looking for come Friday’s playoff opener.

The Thunder have plenty of offensive performers, including Rhett Wilcox, who had all 17 of his goals come at even strength this season, leading the team. Tyler Benko also scored 17 goals, but had six come from the man-advantage another import area for the Thunder ahead of their first round series.

(4) Bonnyville Pontiacs vs. (5) Sherwood Park Crusaders

Season series: The Bonnyville Pontiac’s won four of the six games in the season series, including all three contests at the RJ Lalonde Arena, where they’ll have home-ice advantage when the playoffs begin. The Pontiacs scored an average of 4.33 goals per game while the Cru tallied just 3.5 goals for per game. The home team won five of the six games this season with the Pontiacs being the only road team to win a game.

Individually, Maltby led the way for the Cru with nine points in the season series. For the Pontiacs Derek Brown had five goals and 10 points, two ahead of Alden Dupuis’ contributions against the Cru. Four other Pontiacs finished with five points each against the Cru this season.

How did the last playoff matchup go: The AJHL may one day write into its bylaws that the Pontiacs and Cru can no longer face each other in the first round of the post-season, but until then, the matchups continue. The two teams met in the first round of last year’s playoffs, with the lower-seeded Cru winning the first two games of the series at the RJ Lalonde Arena and closing out the series in four games.

In fact, the Cru have won the past three playoff series against the Pontiacs, though Bonnyville had their number in the three series before that. That accounts for six first round meetings since the 2007-08 season with Bonnyville having won 12 of the 23 games between the two clubs. The home team is 14-9 in those six series with both teams splitting seven home victories between them.

The difference in wins comes on the road for both clubs where the Pontiacs have a 5-7 record compared to the Cru’s 4-7 record. The Pontiacs have two series sweeps to their credit while the Cru have won one. Both teams have also won five-game series.  The past three series have also brought good fortune for North Division champions. The winning team from the last three series has gone on to lose to the team that has eventually won the North Division title.

Motivation: After a 37-19-4 season, the Pontiacs have now had back-to-back seasons of 35 or more wins for the first time since the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons. They’ve also finished third in the AJHL North four of the past six seasons. Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated into any playoff success, something Rick Swan would like to have with his club sooner rather than later. Even a trip to the league final would be a realistic improvement to a team that has only made it as far as the North Division final.

Breaking the funk of past playoff performances are also on the mind of the Crusaders, who have been to three league finals in their history, but have yet to win a championship. Even when they move forward, they seem to get stuck at a certain level for a few years. After losing in the first round for several seasons, the Cru have now won five straight first round matchups. But that’s been all they’ve gotten, losing in the second round for the past five straight seasons.

X-Factor: The Pontiacs did well to spread their offence around this season, with 10 players finishing with double digit goals for the 2016-17 campaign, but the team’s big three of PJ Marrocco, Alden Dupuis and Derek Brown will be the players the Cru will need to contain. 

The trio combined for 78 goals this season, 14 of them coming on the power play and 11 game-winning goals in total. The Pontiacs have had a trio of players reach the 20-goal plateau in the past three years. For placing fourth in the North Division, the Pontiacs still possess a potent offence that tallied 227 goals in a tough division.

On the Crusaders’ side of the equation, they had four players reach and surpass the 20-goal plateau in Tyler Maltby, Ty Readman, Alex Rotundo and Tanner Younghans. Malty led the way with 38 goals, including eight on the power play, but Younghans led the game-winners department, with seven to his name throughout the season.

The Cru finished just ahead of the Pontiacs in goals for this season with 230 goals.

By Robert Murray @NovaCanuck