AJHL Preview: Final Regular Season Weekend

Just 12 games remain in the 2015-16 Alberta Junior Hockey League season, with three of the six first round playoff matchups in the 2016 AJHL Gas Drive Cup yet to be determined.

Unsurprisingly, all three of those undecided series come from the Viterra AJHL North Division where there is still a lot to be determined.

The Whitecourt Wolverines (42-11-6) will close out their season Friday night with a date against the Sherwood Park Crusaders (38-19-2) in what is also the final matchup of the Cru’s season.

Hosting their final game of the season, the Cru can’t improve upon their fifth place finish at the moment, but at 78 points, they can have one of their best seasons statistically in recent memory. Their current point total ties them with the 2012-13 Crusaders team that also recorded 78 points. Even a single point in Friday’s contest would give them their best point total in a 60-game season since their 83-point campaign in 2008-09.

Set to play the final regular season game of his junior hockey career, Cru forward Ryan Kruper will look to look to put the finishing touches on a career year that has seen him score 28 goals and 76 points, recording personal highs in goals and assists. He has seven game-winning goals this year and 10 for his career.

With a record of 20-4-5 through their first 29 road games, the Wolverines have already set a franchise record for road wins in a season and it’s a big reason they’ve remained in possession of second place until the final weekend of the season. With 50 assists this season, Wolverines forward Erik Pedersen is one of three players to reach that mark this season, though he’s been the only one to do it in less than 50 games.

Their playoff future will line up against the Drayton Valley Thunder (22-32-4) or Fort McMurray Oil Barons (10-39-9) following this weekend. In a teacher-mentor battle, Lloydminster Bobcats (43-13-2) head coach Gord Thibodeau and interim Thunder head coach Ryan Allen will go head-to-head for the first time in their respective coaching careers. Allen played and served as an assistant to Thibodeau in Fort McMurray.

The Bobcats’ last loss in Drayton Valley came Nov. 6, 2014. More important than that fact though is the prize of second place being up for grabs if they win both their games. For the Thunder, they’re locked into sixth place. The Thunder haven’t had a player crack the 50-point plateau since three accomplished the feat in the 2011-12 season, and this year’s leading scorer, Brayden Harris, would need to have a six-point weekend to reach that target. The Winfield, Alta. native has 94 points for his junior hockey career and six more would give him an even 100.

In another battle of MOB bench bosses past and present, Kevin Higo and the Grande Prairie Storm (9-45-4) will look to close out their season on a high note in Fort McMurray against Tom Keca and the Barons. Playoff-bound, the Oil Barons could very well rest part of the growing list of injured players this weekend, though Keca still has his focus on having the team improve their all-around game before heading out on the road to Whitecourt or Lloydminster.

For the Storm, their season will come to a close again without a taste of the post-season. Up for grabs though is some bragging rights in the final game of the season series with the MOB. Luke Mahura is the first member of the Storm to record 50 points in a season since Gus Correale did so in the 2012-13 season.

The Brooks Bandits (47-9-2) will host the Calgary Canucks (23-32-3) and Calgary Mustangs (12-43-4) at the Centennial Regional Arena this weekend, looking to go a perfect 12-0 against the two teams combined this year. The last victory for a Calgary team against the Bandits came Jan. 7, 2015 when the Canucks beat the Bandits 6-2.

Heading into the playoffs as the team to beat in the Viterra AJHL South Division, the Bandits could have their hands full with their opponents should they reach the Gas Drive Cup Championship Final. Five the Bandits’ nine losses this year have come against the Viterra AJHL North, though they’ve been on both the giving and receiving end of blowout losses against the strongest teams in the division.

For the Canucks, this weekend presents itself as an opportunity to sharpen their skills before Thursday March 10, the date of their opening playoff game against the Okotoks Oilers (31-25-3).

The Mustangs will close out their season playing for pride. Mustangs Jordan Xavier has emerged as one of the team’s top offensive threats this year. In his past 12 games, Xavier has eight goals, 16 points and has been held scoreless once.

The Oilers will close out their season on the road against the Olds Grizzlys (16-39-3) Friday. The Grizzlys will then close out their season on the road against the Canucks Saturday. Since capturing the division in back-to-back seasons between 2009 and 2011, the Oilers have stayed close to the top of the division, finished second or third since then. In fact, the last time the Oilers finished out of the top three was in the 2005-06 season, when they finished fifth.

For the Grizzlys, a regular season full of individual success — Wyatt Noskey and Chase Olsen sit first and second in league scoring respectively — without that translating into the standings will come to a close. Awaiting them in the first round are the powerhouse Camrose Kodiaks (37-14-4).  The Grizzlys are 0-9-1 in their last 10 games and can’t improve their standing this weekend regardless of how they do.

The lone playoff preview from this weekend’s games will come when the Drumheller Dragons (24-29-5) visit the Canmore Eagles (26-27-6) Friday night. The Dragons will then close out their season Saturday evening at home against the Kodiaks.

Friday’s contest may give the best glimpse for how next week’s playoff series will go, but for now, the season series has practically split things down the middle. Both the Dragons and Eagles have won at least one game in Canmore and both have won at least once in Drumheller. The Dragons have a one-goal advantage on the Eagles in the season series, scoring 22 goals to the Eagles’ 21.

The Kodiaks, who have played their way into home-ice advantage every year since the 2009-10 season will look to make the most of a strong regular season again. To close out that season, they’ll take on the Dragons Saturday and host the North Division champion Spruce Grove Saints (48-7-4) Sunday afternoon.

They’ll be a tough team to face inside the Encana Arena as well, where they’ve lost just once in regulation since the start of January.

For the sixth time in the past eight seasons, the Saints will finish with 100 or more points in a regular season, a testament to their domination of a division that has become more competitive in recent seasons to challenge the Saints for their spot at the top. As a sign of how that’s worked out so far, the 2007-08 Oil Barons remain the last non-Saints team to win the Viterra AJHL North.

As it should go without saying by now, the road to winning an AJHL Championship will ultimately go through Spruce Grove, whether you like it or not.

by Robert Murray