AJHL Weekend Preview – December 18, 2014

Naughty or Nice?

With the 16 teams of the Alberta Junior Hockey League about to break for the holidays, the final weekend of play provides plenty of gifts to fans and players with 18 games on tap in the final five days of play for December.

Santa Claus may not be coming to town for another week, but both the Okotoks Oilers (24-9-3) and Drumheller Dragons (20-11-5) will be coming to their opponents town and arenas to bookend the busy week of action.

Beginning Thursday night in Okotoks, the Oilers received their gift a few months early this year with the addition of goaltender Nic Renyard, making the duo of him and backup Riley Morris a formidable tandem in the league.

With just four goals over their past three games and a 1-2 record in that span, the Oilers have a sweep of their three weekend games on their wish list for the holidays. The trick to that task is doing so without their leading scorer Rhett Gardner, who is presently fulfilling his duties at the 2014 World Junior A Challenge.

On the other end of that equation are the Dragons, who’ll close out the first half with their two main sources of offence firing on all cylinders. Dakota Zaharichuk, who leads the team with 34 points, has points in 16 of his last 18 contests, picking up six goals and 21 points over that span.

Not to be outdone, Hunter Mills sits one point behind Zaharichuk in the team’s points race, scoring seven goals and 17 points in his last 12 games.

Outside of the pair of games against the Oilers, the duo will get a third opportunity to score some points on the weekend, hosting the Viterra South Division-leading Camrose Kodiaks (29-4-2) Friday evening.

Rather than rocking around the Christmas tree, the Kodiaks having been rocking around the league since Oct. 17, going 19-3 in that 22 game span, including an impressive 8-1 record in one-goal games over that stretch.

Following their trip to Drumheller, the Kodiaks will return home to close out their season series with Fort McMurray Oil Barons (21-14-3) Saturday evening. The Oil Barons, who will also take on the Olds Grizzlys (17-14-4) over the weekend, had some success on their last South Division road trip, picking up two out of a possible three wins.

Curtis Hunt and the MOB have seemed to settle down for the time being from their flurry of trades and revolving goaltending door to post a 5-2 record on the road since the start of November, a slight turn around from the 4-6-3 record away from the Casman Centre in September and October.

Despite this, they’ll be in tough Friday in Olds against presumed starter and former Oil Barons goaltender Jesse Gordichuk, who was traded away from the MOB Nov. 7 in exchange for forward Kyle Star.

Seeking a desire to stay competitive in the south division, the Grizzlys were buyers at the Dec. 1 roster cutdown, acquiring offensive weapon Jade McMullen among their other moves. So far, both moves have provided dividends, with Gordichuk registering wins in four of his last five decisions, while McMullen had seven goals and nine points in his first four games with his new team.

After the Grizzlys welcome the Oil Barons to town, the Lloydminster Bobcats (21-11-5) will close out their month of December at the Olds Sportsplex following games against the Calgary Mustangs (8-26-3) and Brooks Bandits (27-8-1) to begin the weekend.

With a 4-0-2 record over their last six games, the Bobcats are doing everything in their power to hold onto second place in the Viterra North Division. Riding the undefeated streak, the Bobcats will look to continue what they started in last Sunday’s 1-0 shutout victory when facing the Mustangs for the second time in five days Thursday in Calgary.

Their penalty killing away from the Centennial Civic Centre Arena has been among the best, allowing eight power play goals on the road through their first 37 games, tied for the lowest total in the league.

The Bobcats’ Thursday night opponent, the Mustangs could certainly use some good news before the holiday break. On a four game losing streak, the Mustangs will feature a trip to visit the Canmore Eagles (16-18-1) Friday and conclude their first half against the visiting Grande Prairie Storm (10-18-7) Sunday.

Following a five-game homestand, which saw them go 2-1-29, the Storm will head down south this weekend to face the Calgary Canucks (12-20-5) Friday, make the short trip to Canmore Saturday and return to Calgary Sunday to face the aforementioned Mustangs.

The Storm came out of their last South Division road trip with a 1-2 record, though they’ll be facing the bottom three teams in the division this time around. Still, the departure of McMullen has left the team to increase their dependence on their offence-by-committee approach, with the Storm still searching for a goalscorer to reach double digits. 

The Canucks meanwhile are coming off the high of a 7-3 beatdown against the Olds Grizzlys. They will play the Storm next and their final matchup of December, a road visit to face the Brooks Bandits (27-8-1).

The Bandits will put their impressive home record on the line, which has lost just once since Oct. 18 twice over the weekend, once against the Bobcats and then again versus the Canucks.

Austin Plevy and Alex Roberts aside, the Bandits are proving they don’t need their one-two punch to finish the job. Chase Clayton’s 37 points in 26 games, Mark Logan’s 34 points in 35 games and Jared Cockrell’s 32 points in 35 games are good enough for third, fourth and fifth on the team’s scoring chart respectively, though the trio’s offensive contributions have been overshadowed by Plevy and Roberts.

With a so-so record of 3-4 in their last seven games as the home team, the Eagles know that a so-so record won’t be good enough to climb the ladder in the South Division. Following a Nov. 25 dismantling of the Mustangs on their home ice to the tune of a 10-5 victory, which saw nine Eagles record multi-point games, the team will be hoping to carry-over that offensive spark to their home ice.

Heading up to the North Division, the Spruce Grove Saints (28-6-3) are dashing through the snow and dashing away with the division, 12 points clear of the second place Bobcats heading into the weekend.

Hosting the Oilers Saturday and taking on the Whitecourt Wolverines (11-20-4) Sunday, the Saints can put themselves in an even better position before the holiday break. While it is hard to believe right now, the Saints found themselves in a peculiar position in late September, losing three straight games to drop their record to 5-3-2.

Since then, the Saints have lost exactly four times, three of them in regulation. Any early doubts about the Saints ability to contend have been wiped clean off the slate as the team looks poised to claim their seventh straight North Division title.

While the Wolverines aren’t close to replicating the success that the Saints have enjoyed, they’ve been fairly alright over their past few games, winning all three in overtime or a shootout. A nice run to make light of a bad season will continue this weekend with home games against the Bonnyville Pontiacs (14-14-6) and Saints.

Led by a pair of Nova Scotians in John Mullally and Morgan Messenger, the Wolverines will be looking to resurrect their decrepit power play, which is operating at 13.33 percent at home.

Friday’s matchup at the Scott Safety Centre will be the first between the Wolverines and Pontiacs since Bonnyville took the opening game of the season series by a 2-1 final Oct. 14.

Their Saturday opponents, the Drayton Valley Thunder (10-18-7) are in a 13-game losing streak which has dropped them onto the playoff bubble with the Wolverines breathing hot on their necks.

The Thunder will be given a chance to buck the streak before taking on the Pontiacs though, hosting the Sherwood Park Crusaders (19-17-4) Thursday evening to kick-off the weekend.

Without head coach Tim Fragle behind the bench and the absence of Tommy Nixon between the pipes due to duties with Team Canada West, the Cru have faltered, losing three straight games. Making matters worse, the Cru have allowed 4.67 goals per game to the 2.33 per game they’ve scored in that span.

A perfect storm has been created for the Thunder Thursday, who will look to avoid lengthening their losing streak.