AJHL Weekend Preview: February 19 – 21, 2016

With the award nominees for the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s trophies being announced earlier this week, the stage is set for a 15-game schedule this weekend featuring several of the league’s top players and teams looking to make that last little push before the post-season.

As the winners of the Dave Duchak Trophy for the Best Overall Record in the past two seasons, the Spruce Grove Saints (45-7-3) have secured themselves the top spot in the Viterra North Division again this year, but need a strong finish to retain the trophy for a third straight season.

They’ll host the Sherwood Park Crusaders (35-18-2) Saturday and the Olds Grizzlys (16-25-2) Sunday at Grant Fuhr Arena to begin a four-game home stand before welcoming their first round bye in the playoffs.

Saints forward and 2014-15 AJHL Rookie of the Year Brandon Biro is one goal shy of 50 for his AJHL career and three points shy of matching his output of 54 points in 57 games from his rookie season. Since the start of 2016, Biro has 15 goals, 27 points and nine multi-point games in 15 contests.

His teammate Ian Mitchell was nominated for the same award earlier this week and has put in a solid rookie campaign. The defenceman has quickly become a part of the league’s best defence and chipped in offensively too, potting three goals and five points in his last five games as part of a 26-point campaign.

Their Saturday opponents from Sherwood Park enter the weekend well behind the top teams in the North Division, but could still give themselves home-ice advantage in the first round if they win their remaining five games and get some help.

The Cru will turn to the league’s leading scorer in forward Ryan Kruper for that extra boost. In his past six games, Kruper has four goals and 11 points.If he maintains his lead, Kruper will become the first member of the Cru to win the league’s scoring title since Reese Rolheiser had 33 goals and 88 points in the 2008-09 season.

Looking to overtake Kruper for the league’s scoring title are a pair of forwards from the Grizzlys in Chase Olsen, nominated for the Rookie of the Year award, and Wyatt Noskey, nominated for the league’s Most Valuable Player and Most Dedicated Player award. Their offensive firepower hasn’t helped the Grizzlys climb the standings, as they enter the weekend seventh in the Viterra AJHL South Division. In a few critical games, it could help them make a last push for sixth place in order to improve their playoff fortunes. 

Their road games this weekend against the Drumheller Dragons (20-29-5) Friday and Saints will effectively either bring the Grizzlys closer to that sixth spot or relegate them to the seventh spot permanently.

For the Dragons, their weekend will be spent entertaining a pair of playoff bubble teams from both divisions with different realities. While their Friday opponents from Olds are all but firmly locked into seventh place, their Sunday opponents in the Grande Prairie Storm (9-40-3) face a much different reality.

Once contending for fourth place, it is still mathematically possible for the Dragons to reach that position, but they have their work cut out for them. A 1-9 stretch in their past 10 games hasn’t helped their fortunes and with other teams moving their way up the standings, the Dragons could be fighting to the end just to maintain their original position. Both Jonny Hogue and Xavier Burghardt have yet to win in the month of February, making the goaltending situation for head coach Brian Curran more interesting as the team heads closer to the end of the regular season.

With eight games remaining in their season and eight points out of a playoff spot in the North Division, time is running out for the Storm as their regular season draws to a close. This weekend won’t get any easier with three games in three days against a trio of formidble South Division opponents.

Friday, the Storm take on the Canmore Eagles (23-24-6) followed by a Saturday night date against the South Division champion Brooks Bandits (44-7-2) and their aforementioned Sunday matchup in Drumheller.

The Storm surprisingly won their first game of the year against the South Division all the way back in October against the Eagles, but have gone on a slide since, compiling a 5-9 record against the South Division this season. They have been outscored 73-39 in those 14 games. Matches against four of the division’s top five offences in the next week won’t help that figure either.

Of all the possible playoff matchup, the one first round series seemingly already decided will feature the fourth place Eagles and fifth place Dragons. The Eagles still have a small chance of creeping past the Okotoks Oilers (31-22-2) for third place, but they’ll need help to do it.

Hosting the Storm and Whitecourt Wolverines (38-10-5) this weekend at the Canmore Recreation Centre, it’s hard to decipher which Eagles team will come to play: the one that features an offence boasting players like Logan Ferguson, who has eight goals and 30 points in his past 22 games, or the team that has gone 5-11-2 since the start of 2016.

Before the Storm and Bandits meet Friday, the Bandits and Camrose Kodiaks (34-15-2) will renew hostilities for the final time this season. Though Brooks has an insurmountable lead on the Kodiaks in the standings, Camrose has taken three of the five meetings this season and could prove to be a challenge for the Bandits in pursuit of their second Royal Bank Cup berth since the 2012-13 season.

With their rankings in mind, the game will also serve as a chance to watch four AJHL award nominees face-off against each other. MVP candidate Nelson Gadoury and Coach of the Year nominee Boris Rybalka will square off against Outstanding Defenceman candidate Shane Bear and Rookie of the Year nominee Cale Makar.

Bear recently surpassed the 100-point plateau thanks to a six-game points streak between Jan. 30 and Feb. 13 where he had three goals and 11 points. Not to be outdone, Makar has posted 13 assists in his last eight games. Coming off a hat trick in his last game, Gadoury has nine goals and 21 points in 16 games since the start of December.

Also making a trip through southern Alberta this weekend will be the Wolverines, who will play in Okotoks Friday and take on the Calgary Canucks (19-32-3) Sunday in Cochrane.

The Wolverines are still trying to nail down second place in the North Division, but have remained one point behind in third place for the time being with two games in hand on the Lloydminster Bobcats (40-13-2). A trio of second-year Wolverines in Bryson Traptow, Justin Young and Joseph Nardi have become synonymous with the team’s success this year.

They’ve scored 21 of the team’s 70 goals since the start of 2016, helping to pick up the extra slack with injuries to fellow teammates like Erik Pedersen.

Their Friday night opponent in Okotoks features Outstanding Defenceman nominee Carson Beers, Top Goaltender nominee Riley Morris and Coach of the Year candidate James Poole. Almost locked into third in the South Division, the Oilers have a light schedule to close out the regular season, featuring three straight games against the Canucks starting Saturday at home.

Forward Matt McNair scored his 50th career AJHL goal Monday and will be on the hunt for more this weekend in his favourite building. Twenty of his 32 goals this season have come inside the Pason Centennial Arena, with eight of those goals coming against the North Division.

The Canucks have drastically improved their fortunes in the second half of the season and have Top Goaltender candidate Logan Drackett and Most Dedicated Player nominee Ben Assad to thank. Drackett’s 17-15-2 record, 2.92 goals against average and .917 save percentage has kept the Canucks competitive in a fierce South Division. Since being traded from the Storm to the Canucks, Assad has 13 goals and 25 points in 28 games.

A pair of wins over the Kodiaks earlier this month and an overtime win against the Eagles have them four points back of the Dragons for fifth place in the division. Their upcoming games against a potential first round playoff opponent in the Oilers could go a long way in determining how far the Canucks are playing into March.

Looking to widen the gap between themselves and the third place Wolverines are the Bobcats, who will host the Drayton Valley Thunder (21-28-4) for a pair of games this weekend. The Bobcats will play four of their final five games against the Thunder, with a pair of games in Drayton Valley in early March to close out the regular season.

The Royal Bank Cup hosts have three players nominated for four awards. Alex Leclerc is up for the league’s MVP and Top Goaltender Award while Noah Bauld is up for Rookie of the Year and Christian Lloyd is contending for the Outstanding Defenceman Award.

But while the team may be basking in the reward of those four nominations, there is still the task at hand of finishing the regular season strong. A mediocre 4-3 record in February — including a pair of losses to the Wolverines — may have the Bobcats losing focus, but they’re still as dangerous as any team in the league.

Acquired at the deadline to provide an extra offensive punch, forward Ryan Chenoweth is doing just that with four goals and 13 points in 13 games.

On the Thunder’s side of the puck, their season will finish in sixth place, with their first round opponent yet to be determined. Whoever the Thunder do face, they’ll start the series on the road, where they’re 6-18-2 this season. Extending the series past three games and getting a second game at home, where they’re 15-10-2 this year, could make the difference between an early exit or first round upset for them.

One of those potential first round opponents is the Bonnyville Pontiacs (35-11-9), who will host the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (10-35-9) Friday before heading south to battle the Kodiaks Sunday.

The Pontiacs have won all five contests against the MOB this season and will be going for a sweep of the season series Friday evening at home. Deservedly so, Bobby McMann, Brinson Pasichnuk and Steenn Pasichnuk all find themselves up for league awards, though the greatest prize to them right now would be moving up a rung or two in the standings.

Four points in their final five games would guarantee home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, while the team could start seriously thinking about third or second with more than four points from those five games. The Yaks are one of five teams in the league averaging four goals per game or more.

The Barons will limp into Friday’s contest, their lone weekend matchup, with affiliates filling out their bottom two lines and the rest of the team going through a string of one unfortunate injury after another.

Still, even a single point would help out the MOB this weekend as they work to claim the final playoff spot in the North Division themselves. Forward Will Conley has three goals and nine points in his last six games while posting 23 points in 25 games since his trade to the MOB.