Teams, players and the fans throughout the Alberta Junior Hockey League may be getting ready for the holiday break, but on the final weekend of play for the 2015 calendar year, there is still plenty to fight for, including first place in the Viterra South Division, second place in the Viterra North Division and other playoff implications.
Starting off in the South, the Brooks Bandits (24-6-2) will conclude 2015 with a trio of games while the Camrose Kodiaks (23-7-3) will host opponents at the Encana Centre Friday and Saturday. The weekend will leave both teams with 35 games played, but only one in first place.
Despite losing some key members of their defensive core to Team Canada West at the World Junior A Challenge, the Bandits have only intensified their pace, with a six-game winning streak entering Thursday that includes an 8-2 beatdown in Drayton Valley and 10-1 thrashing in Sherwood Park last weekend.
This weekend, they’ll complete a home-and-home with the Okotoks Oilers (19-13-2) starting Thursday in Okotoks. The weekend will also feature a visit to the Centennial Regional Arena by the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (6-24-6) Saturday. Bandits forward Dylan McCrory has five goals and 15 points in the past 12 games.
For the Kodiaks, they’ll host the Drumheller Dragons (14-18-3) Friday before receiving a visit from the Oilers Saturday. Also on a six-game winning streak of their own, the Kodiaks have kept themselves in the race for the top spot in the division. Over his past four starts, goaltender Patrick Gora has posted a 4-0-0 record, 1.25 goals against average, .953 save percentage and one shutout.
Making their way around the division to wrap up 2015, the Oilers will play three tough games that could either close or widen the gap between them and the top tier of the South Division.
At home, the Oilers have followed almost a similar suit to the Bandits and Kodiaks, posting a 11-5-1 record at the Pason Centennial Arena. It’s their road record that is causing the difference in the standings at this point though as their 8-8-1 record away from home — 4-1 in their last five — have kept them from joining the top teams in the division to challenge for first place.
Up in the Viterra North Division, the division-leading Spruce Grove Saints (30-5-2) have continued to go about their business of widening the gap between them and their opponents for the division lead. They’ll look to further extend that lead when they play the first two of three games in a row against the Sherwood Park Crusaders (23-11-2), starting with a home-and-home this weekend and continuing into the New Year.
While the Saints have won both contests in the season series so far, they’ll be without goaltender Matthew Murray this weekend, who earned both victories against the Cru. Garrett Mason has filled in admirably while Murray is away fulfilling his duties with Team Canada West, posting a 5-0-2 record, .98 goals against average and .958 save percentage and two shutouts in seven starts.
December has been a case of two teams showing up for the Cru. On one side is the team that got beat 10-1 by the Bandits, 6-3 by the Dragons and 4-2 by the Thunder. A 5-4 overtime win over the Lloydminster Bobcats (24-7-2) at home Wednesday may not mean much in the grand scale of a 60-game season, but a win and strong showing against the Saints could be the spark they need to take into 2016 to move up the standings.
Elsewhere in the division, the Whitecourt Wolverines (24-7-4) will head to Revolution Arena for a pair of games against the Grande Prairie Storm (8-25-2) while the Drayton Valley Thunder (15-15-4) and Bonnyville Pontiacs (23-9-7) will meet up at the RJ Lalonde Arena twice.
In Grande Prairie, the Storm will open up an eight-game homestead that runs from Friday through to Jan. 12 when they host the Saints in Slave Lake. With the MOB tied points-wise with the Storm, the next stretch will be an important one for the Storm. At 4-6 in their last 10, they’ve also experience the most success at home this season, sporting a 5-9-2 record as the home team.
All of that home cooking for the Storm likely means very little to the Wolverines, who are 11-2-3 on the road this year, sit one point back of the Pontiacs for second in the division and own the hottest player in Erik Pedersen, who recently saw his 12-game point streak (9 goals, 26 points) come to an end. It might also be worth mentioning that the Wolverines have outscored the Storm 17-5 in the first two meetings of the season.
In Bonnyville, the Yaks will be attempting to hold off the advancing Wolverines when they host the Thunder for a pair of important games. Despite a three-game winless streak, the Pontiacs are still 7-1-2 in their last 10 games, keeping them on par with the Saints, though that still leaves them nine points out of first place with just 21 games left in their regular season.
When looking at the Thunder, not only has it been a case of a different team showing up at home as opposed to the road, it’s eerily opposite. Where the Thunder are 11-4-2 at home, they’re 4-11-2 on the road. Their last road win came Nov. 21 in Calgary against the Canucks, but in the four following away games, it’s been nights to forget as they’ve dropped all four of those games by a combined 25-6 score. The good news for the Thunder is that they’ll get to play seven of their 11 January games at home.
Making their way through the South Division this weekend are the Oil Barons and Bobcats. The MOB have been in the southern part of the province since Tuesday’s game against the Calgary Canucks (11-23-1) in Strathmore and followed up their 4-3 win there with a 4-1 victory over the Calgary Mustangs (4-31-3) Wednesday.
Their trip will pit them against the Canmore Eagles (17-12-4) Friday and Bandits Saturday to close out 2015 for them. On the strength of back-to-back wins for the first time since Feb. 17-18, 2015, the MOB have finally gained some momentum on the season and while the Bandits will surly provide a stiff test Saturday, the MOB may luck out with hitting the Eagles at a rough patch.
Though the Eagles are still very much in the South Division race with 38 points, a 3-5-2 record over their past 10 games has them sitting at the bottom of the top-tier in their division. Losses to the Canucks and Dragons — in overtime — and the Kodiaks — twice — has the Eagles returning to ground. Forward Lane Olson has four goals and five points in his last three games.
Still fresh in the MOB’s mind is the 8-1 thumping the Eagles delivered to the MOB at the Casman Centre in mid-November. MOB forwards Will Conley and Ben Sharf are on three-game point streaks at the moments. Conley has two goals and four points in that span while Sharf has three goals and five points following a nine-game pointless streak.
Depending on how you look at it, it could be the MOB’s prefect opportunity for revenge or just what the Eagles need to return to their form from earlier in the season.
On the Bobcats’ end, they’ll make their annual trip to face the Olds Grizzlys Friday (14-17-2), take on the Eagles Saturday and finish it off against the Mustangs Sunday. The Bobcats have hit a bit of a slump, that other teams in the league would be jealous off, going 5-3-2 in their last 10 games. As they’ve stayed more or less in the same spot, they’ve been passed by the Wolverines and Pontiacs in the standings, putting them fourth entering the weekend.
Three-point games have also cost the Bobcats their breathing room in the standings as they haven’t won in regulation since Nov. 27 at home against Fort McMurray and are just 1-2-2 in December.
Before the Mustangs and Bobcats meet Sunday, the Canucks will host the Mustangs and their 29 game winless streak Friday at the Max Bell Centre. Both Calgary teams are once again confined to the bottom two spots in the division, with the Canucks holding the advantage this year.
Despite the difference in the standings, the Mustangs hold the bragging rights in the season series with a 2-1 record this season against the Canucks thanks to two wins in September. Two of the three games in the season series have been one-goal games while the team scoring first in each of the games has gone on to win.
In Olds, the Grizzlys will host the Bobcats Friday before welcoming the Dragons to town Saturday in a central Alberta clash to conclude the calendar year. The Grizzlys have improved their fortunes in the standings thanks largely to a trio of games against the Mustangs this month as they moved to sixth in the division ahead of both Calgary squads.
The Grizzlys will draw a tough playoff opponent regardless of where they finish in the tight South Division, but they’ll have a number of parts available to them for the future to be happy about as well.
Chase Olsen appears to be the front-runner for the rookie of the year award and is making his case stronger lately with seven goals and 15 points in his last seven games. 18 year-old Cole Plotnikoff is another 1997-born player enjoying a successful season with the Grizzlys, posting five goals and 16 points in 31 games this season.
Olds’ Saturday night opponent from Drumheller will open their weekend a day earlier against the Kodiaks before completing the trek to Olds. Dragons’ defenceman Clint Filbrandt is producing just shy of a point per game, notching one goal and seven points in his last three contests while rookie wonder Levi Wunder is on a five-game point streak with two goals and seven points in that span.
The duo have contributed to a Dragons squad that are now winners of three straight, and have points in five of their last six games. Jut seven points back of the Canmore Eagles for fourth in the the division, the Dragons and Grizzlys are making the battle for home-ice advantage all that more interesting heading into the final third of the season.
By Robert Murray