AJHL Weekend Preview: February 24th-26th

With 10 days left in the 2016-17 Alberta Junior Hockey League’s regular season, much remains to be settled in terms playoff series.

A battle between the top two teams in the Viterra AJHL South Division will feature the Brooks Bandits (46-4-4) playing a home-and-home series with the Calgary Canucks (35-17-4) that begins at the Max Bell Centre Friday night.

The Canucks may have had one of the most surprising seasons out of any club in their division, but that hasn’t stopped the Bandits from having their number. The first three meetings of the regular season went to the Bandits, though the Canucks finally picked up their first victory earlier this month at home.

Even with the Bandits well ahead in the South Division race, there’s still playoff implications. For the Bandits, securing two victories over a team they could very well face in the division final will play into how they take these two weekend games. For the Canucks, a precious four points are up for grabs that can help them inch closer to locking down second place.

Mitchel Benson has allowed two goals or less in 13 of his last 15 starts. Logan Drackett is just three wins shy of 50 for his AJHL career, but has faltered recently. Regardless, the Canucks have kept up the pace in the division, winning five of their last six games.

Another all-South Division home-and-home battle this weekend will pit the Okotoks Oilers (33-17-5) against the Drumheller Dragons (21-31-5). The home team has won each match up between the two sides, including an exhibition match up in early September. This is when the games matter for both clubs though. Drumheller is virtually locked into sixth in the division while the Oilers are battling for second, but currently find themselves in third.

A pair of wins from the Oilers would help them put pressure on the Canucks while they also try to avoid falling to fourth. Wins for the Drumheller Dragons won’t change their overall finishing position this season, but it would give the team some renewed confidence under interim general manager and head coach Darryl Olsen. The Dragons are just 1-7-1 this month and could use a boost to help shape how long they’ll play into March.

Oilers forward Jordan Xavier has three goals and seven points in six games this month while the Dragons will counter with a forwards group that includes forward Cody Young, who was named the Canalta Hotels AJHL Player of the Week Monday and has six goals and nine points in his last four games.

At the top of the Viterra AJHL North Division, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (41-10-3) have their first chance to clinch the top spot in the division with a three-game weekend road trip. It begin with games Friday and Saturday against the Lloydminster Bobcats (14-39-3) and a Sunday date against the Bonnyville Pontiacs (34-17-4).

The Barons would need to win all three of those games to officially clinch, so nothing is guaranteed yet, but things are looking up for a MOB. They’ve won all four meetings this season against the Bobcats and would do well to keep themselves fixated on the task at hand.

Team captain Brandon Ralph is having an outstanding season leading his hometown club. The McMurrayite notched his 25th goal of the season over the weekend and had five goals and 10 points over a four-game point streak until he went pointless in Monday’s final home game for the Barons.

The Bobcats will be taking their playoff lives into a four-game homestead to end the regular season, sitting one point out of the final playoff spot in the North Division. The Bobcats have a respectable 5-5 record this month, but they’ll need to take down the best team in their division in order to keep their playoff aspirations alive.

Kobe Walker will once against need to be one of the Bobcats’ offensive leaders. He scored his first career AJHL hat trick last weekend at home, giving him 16 goals on the season. Of the seven North Division teams he’s faced this year, Walker remains scoreless against the MOB and Pontiacs.

While the focus of the Bobcats will be in their two home games, they’ll also be intently watching the scoreboard to see the outcome of the weekend games between the Sherwood Park Crusaders (30-23-1) and Grande Prairie Storm (13-37-6) at Revolution Arena. The Cru will complete their weekend with a Sunday afternoon road date against the Drayton Valley Thunder (15-35-4).

The Storm will also play their final four games of the season at home, also facing tough competition. Thankfully, their 9-14-3 record at home is better than their 4-23-3 road record. Interestingly enough, the Storm enter the weekend as one of only four AJHL teams that have yet to win a game in the overtime or shootout this year.

For the Crusaders, the club has made a valiant push towards home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs but have stayed in that fifth-place spot. While they can’t realistically change where they finish, they can at least use the away games as an opportunity. For a club that’s 11-13-1 on the road this season, three road wins, against any North Division opponent, would give the team some added confidence heading into the post-season.

Tyler Maltby is seven goals shy of 100 for his AJHL career and could easily amass those totals in the Cru’s final six games. In two games against the Storm this season, Maltby has three goals.

A Friday night contest between the Pontiacs and Spruce Grove Saints (37-16-2) at Grant Fuhr Arena will have all the makings of a playoff atmosphere for both teams. Looking to start their respective two-game weekends on the right note, the Pontiacs and Saints are also battling for third place in the North Division.

The Saints presently lead that race by four points, making a regulation decision in either way huge for the winning side. The season series has been fairly even so far with each winning once on the road and again in their home building. The two teams meet again Tuesday night in Bonnyville, putting four crucial points on the line.

With a 6-2 record in February, the Pontiacs are coming on strong in the final stretch. They’ve allowed a low 1.63 goals against per game helping them threaten for one of the top three spots in the division. The Pontiacs have split their 34 wins on the season at home and on the road. For the third straight season, the Pontiacs will enter the post-season with three 20-goal scorers.

On the Saints’ end, they’re 7-3 in their last 10 home games and will look to improve upon that record come Friday’s home game as well as a Saturday date against the Whitecourt Wolverines (37-12-6). A four-point weekend for the Saints, coupled with regulation losses from the Wolverines in both their games would cede control of second place to the Saints on the virtue of a tiebreaker, but continue to clutter up the standings in the top of the North Division.

The home team has won every single game of the season series this year, with the Saints capturing a battle in the shootout the last time they met. As the last meeting of the regular season, the matchup should prove to be an exciting affair for fans to take in a the Scott Safety Centre.

Hosting the Thunder Friday before their Saturday date with the Saints, the Wolverines enter the weekend with their backs pretty much against the wall in their pursuit of the North Division crown. It is still possible for them to charge up to overtake the MOB, but with the amount of games remaining running low, they’ll need to be on their top form for the remainder of the regular season.

Liam Motley became the third Wolverines player to reach the 20-goal plateau with the club this season, giving him 27 on the season when including his states with the Kodiaks. The Wolverines led all North Division clubs with 225 goals for this season, but how that translates to the post-season is another matter, one their opponents likely won’t want to find out the answer to come March.

For the Thunder, their six remaining games are far from meaningless. Sitting in sixth place, they could still end up on the outside looking in of the post-season, making their weekend games against the Wolverines Friday, Camrose Kodiaks (30-23-3) and Crusaders that much more important. Gaining wins against either team would also help with motivation heading into the playoffs.

Rhett Wilcox enters the weekend on a four-game goal-scoring streak. He has five goals and nine points in those four games.

Hosting the lone inter-divisional match up of the weekend Saturday, the Kodiaks will enter the game on the tail-end of a back-to-back following a game down the road against the Olds Grizzlys (16-33-6) the night before.

Like the Cru, the Kodiaks also enter the weekend likely confined to fifth place for the remainder of the season. They have four games remaining and trail the fourth place Canmore Eagles (32-18-6) by seven points in the standings.

That will put the focus on improving their own play without worrying about rising or slipping in the standings. For the first time since the 2013-14 season, the Kodiaks are in danger of finishing the season with a losing record on the road. They enter the weekend 12-13-2 on the road with three games left to play away from the Encana Arena.

For the Grizzlys, they’ll occupy seventh place heading into the playoffs, but will have two prime chances to pick up valuable wins against the Kodiaks Friday and Eagles Saturday. The last two games of their season series have been decided in the shootout, but the Eagles still have all five wins this season against Olds.

Chase Olsen had a four-goal game against the Calgary Mustangs (8-46-2) Wednesday to surpass the 50-goal plateau in his AJHL career, all of which have come with his hometown team.

Must-win games are a situation facing the Eagles, who will host the Mustangs Friday followed by the Grizzlys Saturday looking for the season series sweeps against both divisional rivals.

The Mustangs and Eagles series hasn’t been much of a fair fight this season, with the Eagles outscoring the Mustangs 33-2. Canmore will get to close out their season with five of six games at home, a stretch they’re 1-1 on so far, but should be able to secure points in this coming weekend.

Those potential points would help the Eagles, who sit one point behind the Oilers for third in the division. Offence continues to be at the forefront of the Eagles’ success. Adam Tisdale scored his 20th goal of the season earlier this month to give the Eagles five 20-goal scorers this season. Matt Forchuk recently tied his career-best 27 goals and will have four games to break that tie. He also enters the final four regular season games of his junior hockey career nine points shy of 200, a remarkable achievement for any player in the junior A ranks.

The Mustangs remain the only team eliminated from post-season contention and with a single game against the Eagles this weekend, not much can change win or lose. Add in a pair of games against the Bandits and one against the Oilers won’t affect much either, but it could provide a spark of momentum heading into another long offseason for the franchise.