Photo – Target Photography:
The turkey legs are long gone and it’s now the stretch drive of the 2017/2018 AJHL Season, with most teams having around twenty games left on the schedule. The playoff race in the South is very real, while the North is very tight at the top – and a pair of those top teams kick of this weekend’s AJHL action.
Tonight, the Whitecourt Wolverines (25-10-5) will meet the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (29-6-3) at the Casman Centre in the Mac. The two north rivals that have only one previous meeting this season, meaning roughly the last quarter of both team’s remaining games will be against one another. With the Wolverines trailing the Oil Barons by six points with two more games played, the importance of these games can’t be understated for either club. After tonight’s tilt, both teams will wrap up their weekend on Friday night with Whitecourt making a pit stop in Bonnyville to take on the Pontiacs (13-20-7) and the MOB hosting the offensively potent Grande Prairie Storm (19-18-3) in a matchup of a top offence vs a top defence. Fort McMurray has been a tough egg to crack at home, while the Storm have been more of a drizzle away from Revolution Place.
The North’s other top team, the Spruce Grove Saints (29-8-3), will be back in game action for the first time in a week when they welcome the Canmore Eagles (17-20-2) to the Grant Fuhr Arena. The Saints haven’t played since a 5-1 loss to the Storm last Friday, which snapped a season-high six game win streak, but they will get another crack at the Storm on Saturday night when Grande Prairie returns to the scene of the crime for both team’s weekend finale. As for the Eagles, the game against the Saints marks the first of a three-in-three road trip through the weekend. On Saturday, the Eagles will head east across the Edmonton capital region to take on the Sherwood Park Crusaders (18-19-2) who are looking to bust through the .500 mark and catch the Storm for fourth in the division. The Eagles will conclude their trek on Sunday, with an evening matchup slated against the Olds Grizzlys (15-25-1), the lone AJHL game of the day. Heading into the weekend, the Grizzlys have a textbook glass half-full, half-empty scenario: they’re five points out of the last playoff spot in the south but only six points out of fifth place.
As for the top teams in the south, the 2nd place Brooks Bandits (29-11-1) won’t leave the confines of the Centennial Regional Arena as they entertain the Grizzlys on Friday and the Camrose Kodiaks (13-16-10) on Saturday. At 9-1-0 in their last ten games, Brooks is the best team in the AJHL over that stretch, bringing them within seven points of the 1st place Okotoks Oilers (32-6-2) who are just a single OT loss off of the Bandits’ pace in their last 10. The Oilers themselves have just a single game this weekend and will hash it out in the valley of the dinosaurs against the Drumheller Dragons (20-18-2) tomorrow night. The Dragons are in one of their toughest stretches of the season, with just three wins in their last ten and are tied for third in the south with the Calgary Mustangs (19-19-4), but have two games in hand. The Oilers were edged 2-1 by the Drumheller on December 29th, which is also the Dragons only win in their last seven away from Drumheller Memorial Arena.
The Dragons do have the luxury of staying at home this weekend and follow up their game against the stacked Oilers with a game against the Calgary Canucks (18-21-1), another team involved in the log jam in the South’s bottom half. The Canucks start the weekend at home tomorrow night against the Kodiaks, which is a big matchup considering the teams are deadlocked at 36 points each as they share the last playoff spot in the South. Calgary’s other AJHL squad, the Mustangs, find themselves on the road against a pair of north division teams who are both looking to move up in the standings. First, the Mustangs visit the Crusaders in Sherwood Park on Friday and then move on to face the Lloydminster Bobcats (15-25-2) in the border city. The Crusaders are just three points back of the fourth place Storm while the Bobcats trail the Bonnyville Pontiacs by a single point for sixth. The Drayton Valley Thunder (10-30-1) are trying to work their way back into the mix with those two teams, with a big win over Lloydminster on Wednesday night pulling them within 11 points of the Bobcats.
-Tom Strangward @TheOneNDTom