AJHL Weekend Preview: February 20-22

Teams are starting to lock in their spots in the Alberta Junior Hockey League playoff picture. The North Division has its seven teams that will compete for the Gas Drive Cup, as the Grande Prairie Storm find themselves playing spoiler the rest of the season, while the Spruce Grove Saints, whose 20 game winning streak was snapped, will still have a bye through Round 1 of the playoffs.

In the South, Camrose has locked up the top spot and will also get a bye in the first round, while both Calgary teams continue to battle for the final playoff position available, which could a single point difference depending how their Thursday night matchup went.

But now is the time of year where the final moving begins and teams look for home ice in the first round, and for some, home ice and later rounds as well.

The Lloydminster Bobcats and Brooks Bandits are both looking to lock up second place in the division this weekend, and it could very well happen.

Lloydminster has a one point lead on the Fort McMurray Oil Barons and a two point lead on the Bonnyville Pontiacs, the only teams that can catch them for second spot. With four games remaining for all three teams, the Bobcats welcome the Grande Prairie Storm to town for games on Friday and Saturday, in what could be a chance for them to enter the 70-point mark on the season, and possibly clinch them the second seed.

However, riding three game winning streaks each, Fort McMurray will have tilts with Drayton Valley, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, a team who has won their last six games, while Bonnyville has a tough weekend against the Spruce Grove Saints on Friday, before a possible first round playoff preview matchup with the Sherwood Park Crusaders on Sunday.

Lloydminster and Fort McMurray are guaranteed home advantage in their first round playoff matchup, while Bonnyville needs only a single win in their last four games to lock up home ice.

While they fight for home ice, Sherwood Park, Drayton Valley and Whitecourt are all fighting for position in the away seeds.

Sherwood Park has only three games remaining in the season and a four point lead on the Thunder heading into the weekend. A victory over Bonnyville on Sunday, mixed with two Drayton Valley losses will have the Crusaders holding the fifth position heading into the playoffs. While two victories for Drayton Valley not only could tie them with Sherwood Park, or bring them two points away, it would also negate much of what Whitecourt could do this weekend in a jammed packed weekend.

The Wolverines are on the road for three games, starting Friday in Drumheller, before a Saturday tilt with Olds and a Sunday afternoon draw with Spruce Grove. It's Whitecourt's last weekend to make up some ground, or else they are facing the No. 2 seed in the opening round of the playoffs.

In the South, Brooks has a seven point lead on Okotoks for second place in the division. Brooks will host the last place Calgary Canucks on Friday before heading to Canmore on Saturday, and will lockup second place in the South with a sweep this weekend, putting them at 86 points, more than what the Oilers can earn in their last five games.

The Oilers are in Olds on Friday night and Whitecourt on Saturday and can only move up one position in the standings, as they have at least the third seed in hand. One loss by the Oilers and a win by the Bandits, and the Oilers are playing 'meaningless' hockey for the rest of the month.

Drumheller can also lockup a home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs with a single victory in their next four games, as two points added to their current eight point lead on the Olds Grizzlys would be enough to hold the spot. The Dragons have the Wolverines on Friday and the Calgary Canucks on Sunday, so home ice in the South should be decided by this weekend.

The Calgary Canucks and Calgary Mustangs will occupy the seventh seed in the South Division no matter how much they win out the rest of the year, as the Canmore Eagles have a 10 point lead on the Mustangs and 13 point lead on the Canucks with four- and five-games left to play by the Calgary teams.

Canmore, just three points shy of Olds, is home to Camrose Friday and home to Whitecourt Saturday.

With only two weekends left of hockey in the AJHL regular season, this weekend should start to shore up some playoff matchups that we will see in Round 1.

by Andrew Brethauer