AJHL North Division Playoff Preview

The 2016 Gas Drive AJHL Playoffs begin Thursday across the Alberta Junior Hockey League.  Here is a quick look at the North Division match-ups.

(2) Whitecourt Wolverines vs. (7) Fort McMurray Oil Barons

Season series: The Wolverines went 6-0-0 against the MOB this season. Three of those games were decided by a single goal and one was a two-goal difference with an empty-netter, but it’s hard to tell what team will show up on either side of the ice. In the the most recent contest on Feb. 29, the MOB more than held their own and pushed back against Whitecourt. There is the other side of season series, where the Wolverines put up 13 goals in two lopsided victories, exposing the Barons’ young lineup during major sections of the game.

Offensive threats: Will Conley played his first game with the MOB Dec. 3 and finished the season as the team’s leading scorer with 28 points. On the team’s top line with Brett Edwards and Shawn Weber, the focus is very much on what this line could be in the coming seasons if kept together. For now, they’re working well together, but it tends to come and go. It could make the difference for the MOB’s chances in a short five-game series.

The Wolverines may have gone 5-4-1 to close out the season, scoring below their season average in February, but the team’s offence is still one of the most dangerous in the league. Erik Pedersen, Justin Young, Bryson Treptow, Kevin Domingue and Joseph Nardi all represent players from the Wolverines who closed out the season averaging a point per game or better. On defence, Brody Valette has proven his worth as an offensive contributor from the blue line, notching 13 goals and 34 points in 57 games.

Net presence: Common sense would place the starting duties for Whitecourt’s playoff run on the shoulders of Tanner McCorriston Thursday night. The 1995-born goaltender finished the season with a 24-8-5 record, marking the first time he’s reach the 20-win plateau in a season. McCorriston won five of the six games in the season series. though his save percentage this year dipped to .897, McCorriston enjoyed success against the MOB, posting a .918 save percentage over the five games. Should McCorriston falter, capable goaltender Garrett Mason should be ready to step in at a moment’s notice.

The MOB will attack their first round series with a two-headed monster in the crease. Eric Szudor and Forbes Ploszaj haven’t exactly stood on their head to make a case for the playoff starting role. Ploszaj has more experience against the Wolverines, though he’s had his struggles against them, giving up 11 goals over two games.

Quirky stat: The last time the Wolverines and MOB met in the playoffs, 2012-13, Erik Pedersen was a rookie with the MOB, scoring six goals and 12 points in his rookie season. With the Wolverines this season, Pedersen leads the Wolverines in scoring with 68 points and leads all Wolverines in points against the MOB this season. He has two goals and 12 points over the six games. Wolverines forward Linden Penner and MOB forward Connor McCallum also played in that series.

Whitecourt: 49 powerplay goals scored in 275 opportunities (17.82%), 12th in the AJHL, (4-20 in the season series)
Fort McMurray:  28 powerplay goals scored in 223 opportunities (12.56%), 16th in the AJHL, (1-20 in the season series)

Penalty kill:
Whitecourt: 38 powerplay goals allowed on 281 opportunities (86.48%), second in the AJHL, (19-20 in the season series)
Fort McMurray: 47 powerplay goals allowed on 225 opportunities (79.11%), ninth in the AJHL, (16-20 in the season series)

(3) Lloydminster Bobcats vs. (6) Drayton Valley Thunder

Season series: The Bobcats went 5-1 against the Thunder this season. While the Bobcats controlled the result of the first four games of the season series, the final weekend of the season provided the only loss for the Bobcats to the Thunder this season. It also marked the first time the Bobcats had been shutout in regular season play since Feb. 27, 2015. Whatever the Thunder did in that game — not including the 48-save effort from Matt Berlin — they’ll need more of in order to extend the series past three games.

Offensive threats: Looking up and down the Bobcats’ lineup, the team’s offensive core appear ready to lead the team on a deep playoff run. The Bobcats soared past the 200-goal plateau for the first time since the 2008-09 season. Kevin Darrar has led the Bobcats in scoring the past two seasons, accumulating 42 goals and 98 points in his past 105 games. Looking further down the Bobcats’ roster is a list of players who could wreck havoc on the Thunder’s chances in the series. Players like Morgan Messenger, Ryan Chenoweth, Troy Van Tetering, Noah Bauld and Kris Spriggs up front will make life hard on the Thunder. Christian Lloyd, Nick Quillan and Alex Pernitsky will contribute to that effort on the blue line as well. If the Thunder don’t find an answer for the whole group, it could be a quick series.

The Thunder will counter with a hodgepodge of stable scoring, led by a pair of overagers in Brayden Harris and Troy Rapuano. Harris closed out his AJHL regular season career with 34 goals and 95 points in 232 games. On defence, Austin Yaremchuk and Joseph Tambasco will likely be pushed to their limits defensively, but found ways to put up points this season with the Thunder. They may not tip the balance of the series, but their efforts could go a long way in determining where the momentum lies.

Net presence: For the Bobcats, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Alex Leclerc get the call in net given his 31-10-2 record this season with a goals against average of 2.48 and save % of .908. Against the Thunder, Leclerc went 3-1 this season, allowing nine goals over the four games and sporting a .907 save %. If needed, backup Pierce Diamond has had a more than capable rookie season between the pipes.

Where the Bobcats seem set with Leclerc, the Thunder will have two options working for them heading into the post-season with Brett Zarowny and Matt Berlin. This is Zarowny’s last time participating in the AJHL Gas Drive Cup, and could earn the start in game one based off that reasoning, but it’s important to not overlook Berlin. Berlin’s 48-save shutout of the Bobcats just a few days ago earned him the Alberta Ford Dealers AJHL Goalie of the Week Award.

Quirky stat: Brett Smythe has played 135 of his 159 career AJHL games in a Thunder uniform, but will suit up for the Bobcats in the postseason following a Nov. 27, 2015 trade. The statistics for this year’s series side with the Bobcats being able to handle the Thunder, but up until this year the Thunder have had the Bobcats’ number, winning all six playoff games between the two teams. The two teams have only ever met in the first round of the post-season, with their last meeting in 2012.

Lloydminster: 55 powerplay goals scored in 260 opportunities (21.15%), 6th in the AJHL, (7-21 in the season series)
Drayton Valley: 28 powerplay goals scored in 217 opportunities (12.90%), 15th in the AJHL, (3-17 in the season series)

Penalty kill:
Lloydminster: 37 powerplay goals allowed on 238 opportunities (84.45%), sixth in the AJHL, (14-17 in the season series)
Drayton Valley: 58 powerplay goals allowed on 220 opportunities (73.64%), 16th in the AJHL, (14-21 in the season series)

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

Season series: Sherwood Park won the season series 5-1. For the fourth time since 2010, the Pontiacs and Crusaders will meet in the playoffs. Starting the series in Bonnyville may actually work out in the Crusaders’ favour, given that they won the the three regular season contests at the RJ Lalonde Arena. The result from the regular season series were also all over the place, with both teams scoring lopsided wins on each others home ice one game going to overtime and another going right down to the final seconds of the game.

Offensive threats: Looking at the Pontiacs, it’s easy to see why they challenged for the top spots of the Viterra AJHL North Division all season. Bobby McMann, the winner of the Alberta Old Time Hockey Players Trophy for the league’s Most Valuable Player, put up 36 goals to finish second in the entire league for that statistical category. He’ll be complimented by the league’s top defenceman in Brinson Pasichnuk, who put up 20 goals and 65 points this year. Also having himself a solid season was forward Kyler Hehn, who took a small step back from his 60 point campaign last season, but still came close to averaging a point per game.

The trio of previously mentioned Pontiacs combined to score 77 of the team’s 243 goals this season, with 19 of those serving as game-winning goals. It’s not hard to think the length of the Pontiacs run in the playoffs will be tied to the production of these three players.

Speaking of goals leaders, the one player to do better than McMann in that department, Crusaders forward Tyler Maltby, will line up on the other side of the ice this week. Malty is part of the Crusaders’ big three — including Ryan Kruper and Cameron Brezinski — that will also account for much of their team’s playoff success. The three forwards totalled 98 goals and 206 points between them. All three players set career best totals in goals, assists and points.

Net presence: The Pontiacs may have two goaltenders on their roster, but there’s little doubt as to who’ll be between the pipes for Thursday’s series opener. Olivier Charest compiled a 28-8-9 record with six shutouts this year. Three of those six shutouts came against quality opponents as well, with two against the Wolverines and one against the Okotoks Oilers. Charest’s .914 save % and 2.39 goals against average ranked him fourth in the league for both statistics. Bonnyville’s offence may be able to trade blows with the best in the league, but they’ll need Charest to be in his best form in order to make it back to last year’s benchmark of the North Division Final.

Crusaders goaltender Zac Klassen saw his first taste of AJHL playoff action last year, compiling a 3-3 record, which saw him play a strong series against the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, but lasted a grand total of 31:14 against the Spruce Grove Saints in the second round. After giving up just five goals on 109 shots against the MOB, Klassen gave up eight goals on 18 shots against the Saints. Looking for redemption, having a strong series against the Pontiacs will go a long way to further his reputation as one of the leagues more reliable goaltenders.

Waiting in the wings is Zac Dyment, who went 3-1 against the Pontiacs this season, giving up 10 goals on 134 shots (.925 save %).

Quirky stat: Crusaders forward Ryan Kruper led the league with four short-handed goals this year and finished tied for first in short-handed points with six. Though he finished seventh in league scoring, Bobby McMann held the best point per game ratio — along with Wolverines forward Erik Pedersen — in the league this season, averaging 1.45 points per game. Five of the six playoff series between the two clubs have been sweeps. The overall playoff record in games goes to the Pontiacs, who lead 12-9.

Bonnyville: 61 powerplay goals scored in 259 opportunities (23.55%), third in the AJHL, (4-17 in the season series)
Sherwood Park: 39 powerplay goals scored in 209 opportunities (18.66%), 11th in the AJHL, (1-11 in the season series)

Penalty kill:
Bonnyville: 24 powerplay goals allowed on 196 opportunities (87.76%), first in the AJHL, (10-11 in the season series)
Sherwood Park: 56 powerplay goals allowed on 286 opportunities (80.42%), eighth in the AJHL, (13-17 in the season series)

By Robert Murray