AJHL Weekend Preview: February 1st-4th

With only one mid-week game, this upcoming weekend is jam-packed with AJHL action and 17 games on the card. It all gets started with two games on Thursday night when the Bonnyville Pontiacs (16-25-7) travel to the Casman Centre to take on the Oil Barons (33-10-3) for their sixth and final meeting of the regular season. Then down south, the Calgary Mustangs (19-26-5) and Olds Grizzlys (15-31-3) will battle it out at the Father David Bauer Arena.

Starting in the North, the Pontiacs and Oil Barons collided just last Sunday at the RJ Lalonde Arena. After 60 minutes of play, Fort McMurray came out as 3-2 winners after Holy Cross commit, Will Conley, netted a game-winning, powerplay goal with five minutes left in the second period. A win for the Pontiacs will see them climb the standings, and leapfrog their Saturday night opponents, the Lloydminster Bobcats (19-27-3), into fifth.  As for the Oil Barons, they’ll stay at home for two contests against the Grande Prairie Storm (23-21-3). A couple of victories for the Barons here will help them close the eight-point gap between themselves and the first place Spruce Grove Saints. On the other side of the ice, the Storm will be looking to pull away from the Sherwood Park Crusaders who they have been in a heated battle with for that fourth and final home playoff spot. Right now, just three points separate the two organizations.

The other contest on Thursday night will see one season-long losing streak end. Olds has yet to collect two points from a game in 2018 and currently finds themselves on a 12-game losing streak. Their opponents, the Calgary Mustangs, are in a similar boat, having only won one game in their last 11 and also find themselves on a lengthy losing streak (10). The Mustangs are still well in the hunt for fourth in the South, despite some lackluster performances. A win for either team will provide a huge morale boost heading into their other weekend games when Olds host the Camrose Kodiaks (17-19-11), and the Stangs’ welcome the Sherwood Park Crusaders (22-23-2) who beat the Mustangs at home 5-3 just a few weeks ago.

Right after their trip South to Olds, the Kodiaks will then travel back home to the Encana Arena to take on the Drumheller Dragons (24-20-3). The two South Division foes currently sit in the final two home ice advantage playoff spots and have just six points separating them. Camrose has come out on top in three of the five times the two have met in, however, it has been a highly competitive game on all five occasions. Three of the games finished with a single goal between them, and the other two involved empty netters. Fans at the Encana should be in for a fantastic game of hockey on Saturday night. Prior to this game, Drumheller welcomes the traveling Whitecourt Wolverines (29-13-5) for the first time this season. The Wolverines have recently narrowed the gap between themselves and the Oil Barons to just six points for second in the North, following a run of form which has seen them lose just once in their past five. Whitecourt will continue their Southern Alberta road trip against the two top teams in the South: the Okotoks Oilers (40-6-2) and the Brooks Bandits (35-11-1). The Oilers and Bandits are in incredible form right now with Brooks riding an eight-game win streak, and the Oilers a 12. The Sherwood Park Crusaders will also face-off against these two South Division juggernauts as they look to end a two-game losing streak, and to reclaim that fourth seed.

The Crusaders and Wolverines aren’t the only teams heading south this weekend. Both the Drayton Valley Thunder (11-33-3) and Spruce Grove Saints (37-8-3) will challenge the Canmore Eagles (19-27-3) and Calgary Canucks (22-25-1) for the final time this season. Friday night will see the Saints and Eagles matchup, while the Thunder look for win number 12 against the Canucks. Spruce Grove and Canmore met only a few weeks ago at the Grant Fuhr Arena in Spruce Grove. The Saints dominated the show on that occasion allowing the Eagles to have just 12 shots on goal which ultimately helped them secure a 3-2 victory. Also, the Thunder and Canucks will meet for the second time this season. In their previous meeting, Drayton Valley grabbed their second win of the season in an overtime thriller back in October at the Drayton Valley Omniplex. Jordan McConnell tied up that game with one second left on the clock to send it to overtime where former Thunder, now Grizzly, Josh Borynec sealed the points for his team. The following night, both teams will switch opponents with the Thunder traveling to Canmore, and the Saints heading to take on the Canucks. A couple of victories this weekend for the Canucks could see them pass the Camrose Kodiaks into that fourth and final home-ice playoff spot. Canmore will be looking to extend their seven-point lead over the Grizzlys to keep themselves in the playoffs, and potentially even jump up the standings themselves and pass the slumping Calgary Mustangs.

Also, keep tabs on Saints forward Chris Van Os-Shaw who is edging closer and closer to the 50 goal mark. The last player to score 50 goals in an AJHL regular season was former Bonnyville Pontiac and now Edmonton Oilers forward Mark Letestu. With 41 goals and 12 games left, Van Os-Shaw has got a very good shot at putting his name in the history books.

Story by Liam Horrobin @LiamHorrobin