AJHL Weekend Preview: February 10th-12th

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Entering the second weekend of play in February, 11 of the 14 playoff positions have been secured, with much left to be decided in terms of positioning and the eventual matches on the road to the 2017 Alberta Junior Hockey League Gas Drive Cup.

A 14-game schedule from Friday through to Sunday will look to make that picture clearer for some teams while the situation will no doubt get complicated for others.

The battles don’t get much more contested than Friday’s game between the Canmore Eagles (30-16-5) and the Camrose Kodiaks (28-21-3) at the Encana Arena. The Eagles took the first game of the two-game set between the two clubs by a 4-1 final to extend their win streak to eight games, providing a much-need boost up the standings after starting 2017 3-4-1.

They sit two points back of the second place Okotoks Oilers (31-15-5) with both teams each having nine games remaining entering play Friday. They’re winning streak has also propelled them to become the fourth team to reach the 200-goal mark this season. Braden Saretsky, fresh off being named the Canasta Hotels AJHL Player of the Week had a pair of goals and a three-point game in his 100th AJHL contest. Saretsky is hitting his stride at the right time with 16 goals and 36 points over his last 19 games.

Countering will be a Kodiaks squad that have now lost three in a row at the wrong time of the season and would not have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season if the playoffs began today.

Interestingly enough, if there were no change in the standings until the end of the season, the Kodiaks would face the same team they faced then in their first round series back then with the Calgary Canucks (30-16-4). The Kodiaks won that series in four games. Helping Camrose improve their standing in the run towards the end of the regular season will be players like 1999-born forward Kyler Kupka, who has 13 goals and 28 points this season, and Mackenzie Bauer, who is two points shy of 100 for his AJHL career.

The Oilers will play only a single game this weekend, hosting the Lloydminster Bobcats (10-36-3) at the Pason Centennial Arena. The Oilers have earned points in four of the last five meetings between the two clubs in Okotoks, a theme they’ll want to continue this weekend. While first place in the Viterra AJHL South Division is out of reach, the possibility still exists for them to slip as low as fifth place by the end of the regular season. Now, that likely won’t happen, but it’s a possibility the Oilers will want to fully avoid.

Oilers goaltender Riley Morris was recently named the Alberta Ford Dealers AJHL Defensive Player of the Week as he extended his win streak to three games. Heading into the stretch drive, the Oilers will want to see more of the Riley Morris that won nine straight games between Dec. 6, 2016 and Jan. 7, 2017. The net minder recently passed the 2500-save mark according to league statistics, maintaining an impressive .913 save percentage over his tenure with the Oilers.

Following their stop in Okotoks, the Bobcats will face off against another South Division team hungry for points Saturday in the Olds Grizzlys (14-30-6) before a Sunday date with the Canucks. The Bobcats are in a dire need of points themselves, with their playoff chances dwindling. Entering the weekend five points out of a playoff spot with 11 games remaining, the competition certainly isn’t getting easier, but the need to step up and play at a higher level is.

The Bobcats could always use help in the offence department, where they’re the only team in the league who have yet to score 100 goals this season. Hometown product Kobe Walker is impressing, leading the Bobcats with 13 goals and 30 points as a rookie. Fellow 1998-born players Zach Kaiser (11-17-28) and Zach Webb (12-14-26) have been helping to lead the team in their drive towards securing a playoff spot.

Before the Canucks host the Bobcats Sunday, they’ll open their doors to the Calgary Mustangs (8-39-2) for the final time this season Friday night. In what has been a strong season for the Canucks, they’ve owned their rivals, winning all five games of the season series so far and carrying a six-game winning streak against the Mustangs into Friday’s battle. 

Ben Assad’s assist in a Feb. 1 game against the Brooks Bandits made him the first Canucks player to tally 50 points in a season since fellow Calgarian Jared Wynia accomplished the feat in the 2010-11 season. Another feat would come Assad’s way if he scores four goals in the Canucks’ final 10 games, which would make him the first 30-goal scorer for the Canucks since Krishna Kaushal scored 32 in the 2009-10 season.

The priority for the Canucks though involves moving themselves up the standings. Presently, the Canucks sit fourth in the division and at the bottom of a three-team heap separating themselves from second place by a mere three points.

For the Mustangs, their weekend will consist of the aforementioned game against the Canucks followed by a Sunday drive to the Olds Sportsplex to face the Grizzlys. Mathematically, the Mustangs are still alive in the playoff race, but it would involve the Mustangs running the table for their remaining 11 games and need help from an collapse of epic proportions by the Grizzlys. With seven of those games coming on the road, where the Mustangs are 1-21-1 this year, things look bleak for the time being.

Individually, Kylor Wall leads the Mustangs with 27 points. But barring a major offensive outburst, the Mustangs could finish the season without having multiple 40-point players for the first time since the 2008-09 season.

Countering them will be the Olds Grizzlys, who can clinch their spot in the post-season as early as Sunday pending wins in both their games as well as a pair of regulation losses by the Mustangs. The Grizzlys enter the weekend as one of five teams who have less than 10 wins at home and on the road. Tyr Thompson, already committed to the University of Alabama-Huntsville, is making steady improvements in his second season with the Grizzlys. His 42 points rank second on the team and seventh among AJHL players born in 1998.

Climbing up to challenge for sixth place will be difficult with a tough North Division road trip ahead of them following this weekend’s home games.

Shifting to the Viterra AJHL North Division, an important home-and-home series between the Sherwood Park Crusaders (28-19-1) and Bonnyville Pontiacs (31-15-4) will begin Friday at the RJ Lalonde Arena, with four important points on the line for both clubs.

Starting with the fourth place Pontiacs, a pair of wins would help them fight their way back into the conversation for the top three spots in the division while also atoning for a sluggish start to 2017. Anything could happen in the final few weeks of the season, and with eight points separating the Pontiacs from first place in the division, their focus will be on climbing back to that spot.

They’ll also be fending off the Crusaders, who sit nine points back of the Pontiacs. A pair of wins by Bonnyville would go a long way in ensuring they have home-ice in at least the first round of the playoffs. Isaac Saniga has excelled in his first season with the Pontiacs. The 2000-born forward is one point shy of reaching the 30-point plateau for the first time in his career and has an impressive 14 goals in 45 games through his first season.

On the Crusaders mind this weekend will be the prime opportunity to cut into the nine-point gap between themselves and the Pontiacs. They may find more success at home Saturday, where they’re 17-9 this year, recording the second-most home wins by a North Division team so far this season.

Regardless of where they finish though, the Cru will need to win on the road in the playoffs in order to be successful. That starts with improving their 11-10-1 record away from Sherwood Park Arena. Ty Readman leads all 1998-born players with 56 points this season and has five goals and 17 points in his last 10 games.

A critical weekend begins Friday for the Spruce Grove Saints (34-15-2) as they host the Whitecourt Wolverines (35-11-4) Friday followed by a Saturday hosting gig against the Drayton Valley Thunder (12-34-4). On the line for the Saints is a chance to close the gap between themselves and the Wolverines for first in the division.

They’ll try to do so at home where they’re 16-6-2 this season as they kick off a five-game home stand. With eight straight North Division regular season titles to their credit, the Saints aren’t going away easily. Formidable challenges by the Wolverines and Fort McMurray Oil Barons (35-10-3) are complicating their attempt to make it nine seasons in a row as the top North team in the regular season.

Forward Logan Ganie is having strong rookie campaign with nine goals and 25 points in 46 games. Another goal from him and teammate Ryan McKinnon would give the Saints eight players with double-digit goals this season.

The Thunder’s playoff hopes will feature just a lone game on their end, but plenty of scoreboard watching as well. While the focus is likely on battling with the Grande Prairie Storm (12-33-3) for sixth place in the AJHL North, they’ll also be checking over their shoulder as the Bobcats sit five points back entering this weekend. The Thunder did their part in January, winning three of the four games against the Bobcats, but the battle will still go down to the wire. The Thunder are marginally better at home this season, where they’ll play six of their final 10 games.

For the Oil Barons, their weekend will consist of a two-game swing to Revolution Arena to close out their season series with the Storm before catching a Sunday afternoon game against the Wolverines. Their 11-02 run since coming back from the holiday break began in Grande Prairie Dec. 30, 2016 when the MOB thrashed the Storm 10-1. A repeat of that performance Friday and Saturday would help the MOB in their bid for the top spot in the North Division as they sit one point back of the Wolverines entering play this weekend.

Any scoring the Storm will do needs to come at even strength. The MOB’s road penalty kill is the third best in the league, trailing only Spruce Grove and Whitecourt. Breaking through Eric Szudor will also be hard. The MOB goaltender is 9-0-2 in his last 11 starts.

As much as the Storm are in a better spot this year, destined to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2012-13 season, they’ve also been inconsistent, though they have yet to face any serious consequences for it yet. They’ve lost six straight contests and a pair of losses this weekend would result in them failing to earn any points in a full month dating back to Jan. 13. Despite all this, they’re still in sixth place in the division, though just barely.

Michael Clarke continues his promising season, recently surpassing the 50-point plateau and now sitting one point shy of 100 for his AJHL career. The Medicine Hat native has also appeared in 156 AJHL regular season games, but has yet to appear in a playoff game. Inserting an offensive force like him into a five-game series could reap some benefits.

The weekends continue to be important for the Whitecourt Wolverines, who have a prime opportunity to widen the gap between themselves and the two teams with a realistic chance of overcoming them for first place in the North Division standings. Three of their next four games will come away from the confines of the Scott Safety Centre, but they’ll be compensated with a favourable schedule in the season’s final weeks, with five of their final six games at home.

At this point though, there’s still so much to be decided between the Wolverines, MOB and Saints that should make things exciting down to the final game. Justin Young is one point shy of 150 for his AJHL career and after a two-goal performance last weekend, now has posted back-to-back 60-point seasons.

Rookie Cody Laskosky is also making an impact with the Wolverines, contributing 11 goals and 30 points as the team’s top rookie.

While they’ve already clinched the top spot in the South Division, the Brooks Bandits (41-4-4) can still have an impact on the final shape of the division standings. This weekend’s matches will see them play a home-and-home series with the Drumheller Dragons (21-26-4) beginning in Drumheller Friday.

These two meetings are the second and third contests between the clubs in an 18-day span where the clubs will play each other four times. The Dragons won the first meeting of the season in overtime, but the Bandits have responded to win the next two meetings.

Bandits forward Parker Foo will play his 100th AJHL game Friday, but he’s not the only impressive 1998-born forward on the team’s roster. Besides the obvious talent of defenceman Cale Makar, the Bandits have been a good fit for import forward Dennis Cesana, who has three goals and 10 points in his last eight games. Cesana also had an eight-game point streak earlier this year.

The Dragons still sit in the cozy middle between the top tier of the South Division and the bottom tier. Based on the success of the team’s ahead of them and near futility of the team’s behind them, they’ll likely stay in that sixth place position, but there’s still plenty of room to grow.

Increasing their offence to not be one of the league’s six teams averaging less than three goals per game would be a good start and finding road success would be a good start. The Dragons haven’t won more than half their road games since the 2013-14 season when they went 18-12 away from the Drumheller Memorial Arena. This year’s record of 8-13-3 can’t be salvaged either, but interim head coach and general manager Darryl Olsen can still have a positive effect in the Dragons’ final nine games ahead of playoffs.

By Robert Murray @novacanuck