Photo – Robert Murray, Fort McMurray Today:
With the holiday break quickly approaching the Alberta Junior Hockey League, a 14-game weekend schedule will feature some top match ups across both divisions.
Leading the Viterra AJHL South Division, the Brooks Bandits (22-3-4) will host the Bonnyville Pontiacs (23-7-3) Friday before the Sherwood Park Crusaders (16-13-1) visit the Centennial Regional Arena Saturday.
The Bandits recently had their 10-game winning streak snapped Wednesday, but are still undefeated in regulation since Oct. 23. That feat has helped them to a league-best winning percentage of .828 and also given them a three-point lead in the South Division with three games in hand on their closest opponent.
Their 56 goals against is the best in the league and the strong play of 1997-born goaltenders Mitchel Benson and Alex Horawski have helped them get to where they are right now. Both goaltenders have sub-2.00 goals against averages and Benson’s .922 save percentage is the second-best in the league.
The Pontiacs will play games three and four of their seven-game swing through the South Division this weekend due to their home rink, the R.J. Lalonde Arena being taken over for the 2016 World Junior A Challenge. Winning the first two games of their trip Tuesday and Wednesday, the Pontiacs kept pace in the North Division to remain within striking distance of the Whitecourt Wolverines (23-7-4).
Their weekend will conclude with their lone away date of the season against the Drumheller Dragons (13-11-4). The Pontiac’s have yet to beat either the Bandits or Dragons yet this year, adding importance beyond just the points in the standings.
Also making trips to Drumheller and Brooks this weekend are the Sherwood Park Crusaders (16-13-1), who visit the Dragons Friday before Saturday’s date against the Bandits. At 6-3-1 in their last 10 games, the Cru have been stuck in the middle of the North Division’s positional battles. They’re a comfy 14 points ahead of the basement and 11 points behind the top tier of teams.
The Cru are 6-6-1 on the road this year and 7-3 against the South Division, but have bad memories of their last inter-divisional game, losing a 9-1 contest to the Bandits. Tyler Maltby continues to produce at a torrid pace, entering the weekend as the only player to have surpassed 20 goals in the league this season. If he continues to produce at his current rate, he’ll surpass his total of 41 goals from last year.
Looking to gain ground in the South Division, the Dragons will host the Cru and Pontiacs this weekend with securing points in the standings on their mind. Rookie forward Joren Patenaude is finding more offensive success again, recording two goals and seven points in his last seven contests. The 1998-born Calgary product has nine goals and 22 points in 37 career AJHL games already.
With a 6-3-1 record in their last 10 games, the Dragons are hoping to carry that success into the second half of the season.
Three big battles will take place in central Alberta this weekend. Friday, the Spruce Grove Saints (21-8-2) will travel to the Encana Arena to face the Camrose Kodiaks (17-12-3). A day later, the Saints will return home to face the Wolverines. Back in Camrose, the Kodiaks will host the Calgary Canucks (22-9-1) Saturday.
Friday’s battle between the Saints and Kodiaks will feature two teams who have been used to finding themselves at the top of their respective divisions in recent years, but are facing significant challenges this year. Both sit fourth in their respective divisions entering the weekend.
The first meeting of the season resulted in a 1-0 overtime win for the Kodiaks at the start of October and the Kodiaks will be looking to continue their good fortune against the Saints while Spruce Grove will be eagerly fighting for two precious points.
Friday’s game also consists of a team who is good at home and a team who is good on the road. The Kodiaks have a 10-5-1 record as the home team this year while the Saints lead the league with 13 road wins.
Saturday, the Saints and Wolverines will meet in another crucial test. For the Wolverines, it’ll be a chance to put more space between themselves and the three teams chasing them for the division lead. On the other hand, the Saints will want to cut into the six-point gap that separates first and fourth place before the holiday break. The Wolverines are undefeated in regulation in their past five games.
Back in Camrose, the matchup between the Kodiaks and Canucks will be a big one for both clubs. Entering the weekend, eight points separates the two teams, a gap the Canucks would like to grow. They’ll be without their star goaltender in Logan Drackett however, who was named to Team Canada West for the 2016 World Junior A Challenge Wednesday.
With an injury to back up Caiden Kreitz, the Canucks’ goaltending picture for their Friday game against the Okotoks Oilers (18-8-4) looks a lot less certain. Normally a position of strength for the Canucks, these next five games until Dec. 18 will be a test of the club’s character. Facing the two teams directly behind them in the standings, the pressure will be on the Canucks’ offence (124 goals in 32 games) to help keep both teams at bay.
The Oilers will host the Canucks Friday before welcoming the Olds Grizzlys (9-16-4) to the Pason Centennial Arena Saturday. The Oilers are averaging nearly a whole goal less per game than the Canucks or Bandits — the two teams ahead of them in the South Division — but they’ve kept pace through the first half of the season at least, staying eight points behind the Bandits for the division lead.
At home, the Oilers have five straight wins, including victories over the Canucks and Grizzlys earlier in the year. The Oilers shouldn’t underestimate either opponent after losing the last game to the Grizzlys in a shootout. In the South Division, any points are precious and that’s what the Oilers will go in search of this weekend.
For the Grizzlys, their weekend will begin by hosting the Canmore Eagles (14-11-4) and end Saturday in Okotoks. The 2016-17 season has not been kind to the Grizzlys, who have just four regulation wins and are 2-6-2 in their last 10 games.
Playing at home will be marginally between for the Grizzlys, who have five wins at home compared to four on the road, but the Grizzlys aren’t where they want to be 29 games in. Friday’s contest at the Olds Sportsplex will be a rematch of Tuesday’s game between the Grizzlys and Eagles in Canmore, which the Eagles won 6-4. Keeping the Grizzlys close in the game were three power play goals. Those came on the road, where the Grizzlys have the sixth-best man advantage at 21.92 per cent. That figure drops to the 12th-best at home however, operating at just 12.77 per cent.
The Eagles will return from their Friday match to host the Drayton Valley Thunder (7-21-4) Saturday. Numbers are on the Eagles side as they sit five points behind the Kodiaks for fourth in the division with three games in-hand at the same time as well.
At the halfway point of the season last year, the Eagles had 107 goals. With one game to go until the halfway point of their 2016-17 campaign, the Eagles have already scored 115 goals, making for a marginal improvement in their offence. The Eagles are also on pace to surpass their 22 regulation wins from last year, with 13 already this year.
The Thunder will head to the South Division to do some soul-searching as they try to rediscover their rhythm before falling out of the final playoff spot in the North Division. After recording back-to-back wins for the first time since the opening weekend, the Thunder fell back down again, losing four straight and holding a 1-6 record in their last seven games. It doesn’t help matters that their lone win came in the shootout, even if it was over the Wolverines.
They’ll make a trip to Father David Bauer Arena to face the Calgary Mustangs (5-25-1) Friday before Saturday’s date in Canmore. The biggest incentive for both the Thunder and the Mustangs will be the promise of two points to at least one of the teams from their Friday night battle, with both teams sitting in the bottom two of their respective divisions and needing some traction in the standings. In all fairness, the two teams have been pretty evenly matches in recent years, with both clubs pulling out tight victories and blowout wins over their respective opponents. The last team to sweep the season series was the Thunder, who won both games in the 2012-13 campaign.
Opportunity knocks in the northwestern part of Alberta for the Lloydminster Bobcats (7-19-2) this weekend as they face the Grande Prairie Storm (7-22-5) for games Friday and Saturday before a Sunday date at the Scott Safety Centre against the Wolverines.
With four games in hand on the Thunder and just two points behind them in the standings for the final playoff spot, nobody needs to tell the Bobcats how important these upcoming games are. A pair of regulation wins for the Bobcats wouldn’t guarantee them a spot ahead of the Thunder, though it would allow them to get past the Storm — who sit three points ahead of the Bobcats with six extra games played — for a temporary spot in the playoffs. Sunday’s game against the Wolverines may seem like a write-off, but the Wolverines will be playing the tail-end of a back-to-back and the Bobcats have handled themselves surprisingly well in games against the top tier of the North Division this year, adding intrigue to the game.
For the Storm, they’ll enter the weekend with the newest head coach in the league after Thursday’s dismissal of Kevin Higo. Taking over is Matt Keillor, who will try to keep the Storm in a playoff spot for the rest of the year. That’ll be easier said and done with the Thunder and Bobcats having multiple games in hand.
One positive for the Storm is that they’ll at least get to begin the Keillor era at home, where they’re 6-8-3 this season, compared to a woeful 1-14-2 on the road.