Photo Credit – Chad Goddard:
There’s just two weekends left before Christmas and this weekend features several heavy weight tilts in both the North and South Divisions.
These premier matchups get underway on the first night of action, as the Drumheller Dragons (22-10-1) face the Brooks Bandits (30-3-0) in a showdown of 1st and 2nd in the AJHL South. The two teams have split their meetings this year, as Drumheller is one of just three teams to hand the Bandits a loss, doing so way back on opening night, but the Bandits got their revenge on September 21st with a 4-0 shutout. This long overdue meeting of divisional rivals will be one to watch. In the North, the 2nd place Bonnyville Pontiacs (23-7-2) will clash with the 3rd place Spruce Grove Saints (22-11-1) at the Grant Fuhr Arena. The Saints will look to gain ground on the ‘Yaks without captain TJ Lloyd and goaltender Matthew Davis, who are still with Team Canada West at the World Junior A Challenge.
Staying in the North, the Whitecourt Wolverines (14-18-2) have their work cut out for them as they look to end a six game losing streak on the road against the Sherwood Park Crusaders (24-6-2). The Crusaders have won five straight and eight of their last ten, which has been enough to leapfrog Bonnyville and take sole possession of first place in the division. The Crusaders have had success against their division all year, sitting at 11-3 against the North, and they’ve beaten the Wolverines all three previous meetings this season, outscoring them 16-3. Another North matchup will see the Grande Prairie Storm (17-15-2) travel to face the Drayton Valley Thunder (13-17-3) looking for their fourth straight win. The teams have played only once so far, meet at the end of November in a tight game that saw the Storm nearly come back from a 3-0 deficit late in the 3rd period. The Thunder hung on to secure a 4-2 win with an empty net goal with 56 seconds remaining.
Two North Division clubs will travel for interdivisional play this weekend, as the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (16-9-6) look to ruffle the feathers of the Canmore Eagles (16-12-3). Oil Barons forward Tyler Maser will likely make his debut with the team after his rights were acquired from Waywayseecappo of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League before the December trade freeze.
The Lloydminster Bobcats (7-24-4) are also south of Red Deer this weekend, visiting the Calgary Mustangs (14-13-6). This matchup will see one club’s four game losing streak snapped, as the Bobcats are coming off an 11-3 loss to the Oil Barons while the Mustangs were set back 6-5 in overtime by the Brooks Bandits on Tuesday. Five Mustangs tallied two point games in the loss: Tyler Lentz, Reece Soukoroff, Tanner Klassen, Chase Miller and Joseph Karpyshyn.
Rounding out Friday night is an All-South matchup as the Olds Grizzlys (4-27-3) host the Camrose Kodiaks (16-10-5). The Grizzlys are looking for their second home win of the season, while Camrose looks to stay above .500 away from the Encana Arena. The Kodiaks are 2-0 against the Grizzlys this season.
Regardless of how these teams fare on Friday, the Sherwood Park Crusaders and Bonnyville Pontiacs will have a lot to play for when they meet in Vermilion on Saturday. At the time of this writing, the teams are first and second in the North Division with the Crusaders holding a two point edge in the same amount of games played. The season series has also been close, with Bonnyville taking 2-of-3 thus far, including a 4-3 overtime victory back in September. The Crusaders will look to avenge the most recent meeting – a 5-1 home loss on November 23rd.
Saturday will also see the Storm and Thunder hold a rematch of their Friday night showdown at the Omniplex while the Saints leave Spruce Grove for Whitecourt to play the Wolverines. The latter is of significant distinction as it’s the Wolverines’ annual R & R Memorial Game. The game will feature special 3rd jerseys (later to be auctioned off for the R & R Foundation) worn by Whitecourt in the memory of Ryder and Radek MacDougall, who tragically passed away in Spruce Grove in December of 2016. The two boys were the stepsons of Wolverines President Brent Stark and originally from Whitecourt.
Meanwhile, the Lloydminster Bobcats and Fort McMurray Oil Barons will continue their southern swing with games against the Canmore Eagles and Okotoks Oilers (18-13-1), respectively. The games are both second meetings of the season, with the Bobcats falling to the Eagles in a 3-2 shootout in their first meeting while the Oilers outlasted the MOB 6-5 in their first matchup.
Rounding out the slate of Saturday games are two South division matchups which see the Calgary Canucks (5-27-1) on the road against the Bandits and the Dragons hosting the Kodiaks. Brooks has already had noteworthy success against the Canucks this season, winning all four meetings and outscoring the ‘Nucks 26-7. The Dragons and Kodiaks are meeting for the fifth time and nearly every contest so far this season has been close. The Dragons beat the Kodiaks 4-1 back in September and then picked up two shootout wins (5-4, 2-1) against Camrose in October. In the most recent meeting (October 27th), the Kodiaks were able to finally solve the Dragons 5-2.
The Oil Barons and Bobcats will end their three-games-in-three-days road trip on the final day of the weekend, as Fort McMurray visits the Mustangs in Calgary while the Bobcats look to upend the Oilers in Okotoks. The Bobcats have already beat Okotoks once this season by taking a 3-1 decision on October 28th and Okotoks will look to even the season series without their lone goal scorer from that game, Dylan Holloway, who’s at the World Junior A Challenge with Oilers teammate Austin Wong, who picked up an assist on that same goal.
The Mustangs and Oil Barons game will be the first meeting between the two teams this season.
The final game on Sunday will be a big one for both teams, as the Canucks and Grizzlys enter this weekend tied for the final playoff spot in the South Division, although the Canucks do have one game in hand on Olds.