by Andrew Brethauer
With each team in the Alberta Junior Hockey League having 10 or less games left in their regular season, it's playoff style hockey from here on out, as first round matchups start to become clear, and we get a good look at who will be facing who in the Gas Drive AJHL Playoffs.
Some teams don't have much to worry about, as each game and each victory makes their magic number smaller as they try and clinch a playoff spot, home ice or a first round bye. So with 13 games this weekend, none on Sunday, here is how this weekend shapes up in terms of the playoff picture and the magic numbers teams need.
Spruce Grove Saints
Magic number: 5.5 to clinch division
The Spruce Grove Saints have been on top of the North Division for most of the regular season, but unlike last year where they ran away with the division early, this year the Saints still have yet to clinch the top spot and another first round bye. With seven games remaining, the least amount of any team in the league, the Saints only have one game this weekend when they head to Drayton Valley on Saturday night. With Whitecourt taking a swing through the top two teams in the South Division this weekend, that magic number could be as low as two by Saturday night.
Magic number: 2.5 to clinch home ice
Whitecourt's current five game winning streak has kept them in second place in the North Division, and their latest weekend sweep of the Lloydminster Bobcats has gave them a small cushion with just 10 games remaining. But with a tough North Division, Whitecourt has yet to clinch home ice for the first round of the playoffs, though they could have it locked up by the end of Saturday night. But it won't be easy for the Wolverines to do it themselves, as on Friday night they are in Whitecourt versus Camrose, and meet Brooks on Saturday in a meeting of the two current longest streaks in the AJHL.
Magic number: 3.5 to clinch home ice
This year's RBC Cup hosts are still looking to catch Whitecourt for second place in the North Division, but also have to look behind them as the Bonnyville Pontiacs look to come up from behind. The Bobcats are in Fort McMurray this weekend for a pair of games, and could have home ice clinched by the end of the weekend depending on what Sherwood Park does.
Magic number: 5.5 to clinch home ice
Bonnyville can help their own cause this weekend, as they will play a home-and-home with the Sherwood Park Crusaders, the team that is chasing them down for the final home ice spot in the playoffs. Both teams are near mirror in wins this season, but Bonnyville can thank their league high eight overtime losses for their eight point lead in the standings. It's a potential first round matchup in the North Division, so more than just points and placement will be at stake, as both teams jockey for position and the upper hand before a possible playoff meeting.
Sherwood Park Crusaders
Magic number: 5.5 to miss home ice
Sherwood Park can't go any lower than fifth in the division, as Drayton Valley can't catch them in the standings. At this point, it is only up from here for the Crusaders, who if they win out the rest of the season, can finish with 84 points. For now though, they are chasing down anyone for home ice advantage in the first round, which means they can't lose five of their next nine games, which includes this weekends double tilt with Bonnyville, the team they are chasing. A sweep of the weekend would but the Cru just four back of the Pontiacs.
Drayton Valley Thunder
Magic number: No magic number
Drayton Valley is the only team in the AJHL that knows their position today won't change by seasons end. With a loss on Wednesday night to Bonnyville, the Thunder don't have enough games left to catch Sherwood Park to move up in the standings, but they have just enough lead on Fort McMurray that the Oil Barons can't catch them either. So no matter what, the Thunder will face the third seed in the first round of the playoffs. Who that is though, with a chaotic North, is anyone guess.
Fort McMurray Oil Barons
Magic number: 6.5 to clinch playoffs
Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie are the only two teams in the North Division who haven't clinched a playoff spot yet, but the Oil Barons are starting to build a good sized gap. Eight points separate the two teams, though the Storm have two games in hand. With the Oil Barons welcoming Lloydminster for two games this weekend, it could be a challenge to lower their magic number to two. Though with the Storm on a slide, the Oil Barons may just need to maintain their lead and let time do the work for them.
Grande Prairie Storm
Magic Number: 6.5 to miss playoffs
Time is running out for the Storm. Grande Prairie's struggles as of late have not done well for a playoff push, and by the end of the weekend, they could be two games away from elimination if they don't dash away the 10 game losing streak they are on and turn it into a winning streak. Unfortunately, the highest scoring team in the AJHL, the Brooks Bandits, come to town on Friday, before the Camerose Kodiaks arrive on Saturday.
Magic number: 2.5 to clinch division
With two games this weekend, the Brooks Bandits literally have the division in their own hands this weekend. With a 16 point lead on Camrose, it's a foregone conclusion the Bandits will win the division, so it's more bragging rights they did it first before the North Division Saints. Brooks is in Grande Prairie on Friday before heading to Whitecourt Saturday as they look to move their winning streak to eight games.
Magic number: 3.5 to clinch second in division
While catching the Bandits would be difficult, Camrose can earn themselves the easiest first round match up statistically by the end of the weekend. With a 10 point gap between themselves and the Okotoks Oilers, Camrose only needs to sweep the weekend and a Oilers loss to secure the second spot, giving them plenty of time to plan for the playoffs.
Magic number: 4.5 to clinch third in division
Okotoks has a 11 point lead on Canmore for third in the division and has their home ice magic number set at 2.5 games, meaning they can have home ice locked up by the end of the weekend. But it is the third place spot in the division that matters most, and the Oilers can help their own cause on both fronts with a Friday night game against Canmore and a Saturday night tilt with Drumheller.
Magic number: 7.5 to clinch home ice
Canmore is in an interesting predicament. They trail Okotoks by 11 points, so moving up is difficult, but they also could lose home ice in the first round of the playoffs due to their slim, two point lead on Drumheller. That magic number of eight means the Eagles and Dragons will more than likely be battling for the final spot down to the wire, in what is basically rights to host the first two games of their best of five series when the playoffs arrives. Canmore is in Oktoks on Friday and against the Calgary Canucks on Saturday.
Magic number: 6.5 to clinch top five
The Dragons are just two points back of Canmore for home ice in the playoffs and still have some work to do in order to clinch a top five spot. With only one game this weekend against Okotoks on Saturday, the Dragons will be watching the Canucks to see what they did this weekend so they can worry about clinch home ice, rather than a team coming up from behind.
Magic number: .5 to clinch playoff spot
With their city rivals, the Calgary Mustangs, off this weekend, the Canucks just need a victory and they can secure their spot in the post-season. But even if they don't win Friday night against Olds or Saturday against Canmore, any slip by the Mustangs means the Canucks are in the playoffs, the Mustangs can only earn 39 points this season, the total the Canucks have right now.
Magic Number: 2.5 to clinch playoff spot
Olds can't clinch the playoffs this weekend, as they only have one game on the schedule against the Canucks on Friday, but they can get it to a point where another win and Mustangs loss gives them the final spot in the playoffs. The Grizzlys are also just five points back of the Canucks, so with the playoff spot secure, they can focus on moving up the standings and get a slightly better first round matchup.
Magic Number: 2.5 to miss playoffs
Calgary doesn't have a game this weekend, which could be good or bad. They can't lose ground when they don't play, but any win by Olds makes the magic number go smaller. With only eight games left in the season as well, Calgary doesn't have much time to get into a playoff spot.