After a short break in hockey, the Alberta Junior Hockey League is back into action in 2016, wasting little time getting on the ice, as the Olds Grizzlys and Brooks Bandits square off on New Year's Day for the first AJHL game of 2016.
With the calender changing, so does the mindset of teams, as January sparks the start of the playoff push across the league, as the last third of the season begins.
Two teams have already clinched their spot in the Gas Drive Cup playoffs, as the Spruce Grove Saints and Brooks Bandits earned enough points in 2015 to ensure they will play in the post-season. And while it may seem to early to think of playoffs, the first weekend of games in 2016 could see plenty of teams clinching playoff spots or getting their magic numbers down.
In the North Division, Fort McMurray's difficult season has left them in the bottom of the division heading into 2016. A steep drop off for a team that last year was on the wrong side of a tiebreaker at the Western Canada Cup that would have seen them go to the RBC Cup. With just 18 points this season, the Oil Barons can only accumulate 44 more points with the 22 games remaining. So it makes their two games this weekend against the Whitecourt Wolverines an important pair of games, not just for them, but for practically half the division.
With two victories this weekend, or one regulation victory and one overtime victory, the Wolverines would clinch a playoff spot. In their previous two meetings, Whitecourt won 3-2 in a shootout and 7-4 the following night, and a reply of that same double-dip would give the Wolervines a pass to the playoffs.
It would also help out a couple other teams in the North, as the Lloydminster Bobcats and Bonnyville Pontiacs would also clinch with two Oil Baron losses, provided they pick up a victory themselves in one of their back-to-back games, as the Bobcats head to Grande Prairie for a pair on Saturday and Sunday, while the Pontiacs are in Drayton Valley over the weekend.
So by the end of the weekend, at least in the North Division, over half the playoff spots could already be spoken for.
Sherwood Park, who are in Spruce Grove on Saturday, would have mix feelings about two Whitecourt victories over the weekend, as it would cut their magic number down to four without counting their own game, but also would see the team they are chasing gain a valuable four points. Currently the Wolverines have a six point lead and a game in hand, so by the end of the weekend they will be even in games played, and could be up as much as 10 points on the Crusaders.
While Drayton Valley seem to have a comfortable 15 point lead for the sixth playoff spot, the final ticket to the post-season is separated by just a point. The Storm have a game in hand on the Oil Barons, but there is still plenty of time for either team to earn a spot in the playoffs in what could be a race to the wire to play the second best team in the first round.
In the South Division, the Calgary Mustangs' 29 game losing streak has them nine points out of a playoff spot, while also giving the Brooks Bandits a ticket to the playoffs. But unlike the North Division, only one team can lock up a spot in the playoffs this weekend, as Camrose needs just a victory and a Calgary loss to secure a spot.
If it doesn't happen on Saturday when Camrose is home to Drumheller and the Mustangs play their city rivals the Calgary Canucks, the Kodiaks will have a chance to take matters into their own hands, as they host the Mustangs Sunday afternoon, and could punch their own ticket to the post-season.
No other team in the South Division can clinch this weekend, however, there is plenty of action for those looking to make a move up the standings.
Two points separates the Okotoks Oilers from the Canmore Eagles for third, while four points is between Drumheller and Olds for fifth.
The Oilers and Eagles will trade a pair of home games over the weekend, first starting on Okotoks on Saturday before their afternoon game on Sunday.
Olds will play a home-and-home with Brooks, while Drumheller is in Camrose and Calgary against the Canucks.
Start thinking playoffs, because by the end of this weekend the AJHL could have six teams with their tickets punched, while a few others could be waiting on the on-ramp with ticket in hand.