AJHL Weekend Preview: January 18th – 20th

With the passing of the CJHL trade deadline, team rosters are now loaded up for potential playoff runs as they wind down the final turn of the campaign.  Another busy weekend of hockey awaits each of the AJHL’s sixteen franchises, and at this point in the season we’re going to focus on each one.

Bonnyville Pontiacs (30-10-2, 62 points, 2nd AJHL North)

The Pontiacs are rolling in January thus far, going 4-2, but they’re coming off a 4-0 shutout loss to the loaded Brooks Bandits.  This weekend, they get to enjoy the confines of the RJ Lalonde Arena where they have a very team-friendly 13-4-2 record and the penalty kill is over 89%. 

On Saturday, the Pontiacs will face the Fort McMurray Oil Barons and in two previous games this season both squads have earned a win.  The two teams will clash again in a Sunday rematch. 

Prior to getting shut out in their most recent game, the Pontiacs offence was really clicking and piled on 27 goals during a 4-1 run. 

Brooks Bandits (39-3-0, 78 points, 1st AJHL South)

The Brooks Bandits are a runaway train once again, with their latest impressive stat being a 15-game win streak.  In January, the Bandits are a flawless 5-0 and have outscored the opposition 24-8.  Despite the Bandits’ latest run of success, the focus remains the weekend at hand and this means ensuring a solid effort against a strong Sherwood Park Crusaders squad and the rival Camrose Kodiaks. 

When the Bandits host the Crusaders Friday, they’ll look to sweep the season series as they picked up a 6-2 win over the Cru way back on November 24th.  Simon Gravel was a standout, racking up a pair of goals and three points, while Pierce Charleson stopped 36 of 38 shots. 

On Saturday, the Bandits look to pick up their second win over the Kodiaks this month, but this time on the road.  The teams see-sawed back and forth in Brooks on January 11th and with the Kodiaks pressing late, a power play goal from Nathan Plessis secured a 6-4 victory for the Bandits.

Calgary Canucks (6-37-1, 13 points, 7th AJHL South)

Despite a nine game losing skid, the Canucks still hold a two-point edge over the Olds Grizzlys for the South’s final playoff spot and they’ll look to keep it that way this weekend as the Grizzlys do have a game in hand. 

The Canucks will work for their first win since December 16th when they square off against the visiting Spruce Grove Saints at the Ken Bracko Arena.  It will be the final meeting of the year between the two squads, with the Saints taking the first edition 6-1.  The Canucks do not play Friday or Sunday.

The Canucks have been very close to ending their losing streak in their last two games, only to fall just short after very gutsy efforts.  Zach Bokenfohr had three points in those two contests.

Calgary Mustangs (23-15-6, 52 points, 4th AJHL South)

A hot stretch of 8-2-0 in their last ten games has spurred the Mustangs into the top half of their division, and now they look to set their sights on the two teams directly above them (Okotoks and Drumheller) with the three squads separated by just five points.

This weekend, the Mustangs will be taking on two teams in very different positions of the standings but plenty to play for.  On Friday, the Mustangs visit the Olds Grizzlys who are in a fight for the playoffs, currently trailing the Calgary Canucks by just two points for the last spot. Then, on Sunday, the Mustangs return to Father David Bauer Arena to face the Sherwood Park Crusaders, who are the current kings of the north and playing to preserve their reign with the Bonnyville Pontiacs just four points back.

The Mustangs penalty kill has been on fire lately, as they’ve killed of 13 of their opponent’s last 15 power plays while scoring shorthanded goals in back-to-back games.

Camrose Kodiaks (21-15-6, 48 points, 6th AJHL South)

After opening up January with points in back to back games, the Kodiaks have come up short in three straight games.  They look to claw back up the tight South Division standings this weekend as they host the Brooks Bandits and the Drumheller Dragons. 

As mentioned above, the Bandits got the better of the Kodiaks earlier this month and Camrose will be hungry to get back in the ring with the top Junior A team in Canada on Saturday.  Before they do so, they’ll take the ice against the Dragons on Friday.  This is the last meeting of the regular season between the two teams, and three of the first five games of the season series have gone to overtime.  The Dragons have taken two of them in the shootout while the Kodiaks have an overtime win on a goal by Cooper Johnson back on December 15th

Canmore Eagles (23-16-3, 49 points, 5th AJHL South)

The Eagles are soaring and have won three straight after a two game losing streak.  Their latest victory came earlier in the week when they earned a 3-1 win over the Calgary Mustangs, which was a hardworking effort.  This weekend, they take on two north division teams in the Spruce Grove Saints and the Drayton Valley Thunder.

The Eagles were felled by the Saints by the slimmest of margins, 1-0, on January 5th as their second ranked power play was unable to convert on four chances and Saints netminder Matthew Davis stopped all 22 Eagles shots sent his way.  This was the Eagles last loss, and they’ll look to even the score to extend their win streak.

On Saturday, the Eagles welcome the Thunder.  The Thunder took a 5-2 decision in the only other meeting this year.  Of note for Canmore is the return of defenceman Jesse Sheen on the back end, who’s rugged play adds to a balanced Canmore blueline corps.

Drayton Valley Thunder (19-21-5, 43 points, 6th AJHL North)

A season after missing out on the playoffs, the Thunder are primed to return in a bounce back year.  This weekend will see them end a rather lengthy 8-game road stint, which started back in Bonnyville on January 8th and will come to a close against the Okotoks Oilers on Sunday after a game against the Eagles in Canmore on Saturday. So far, the Thunder are a respectable 3-3 on the trip, though they have dropped two of their last three and a gutsy comeback effort against the Mustangs on Thursday fell just short.

The Thunder have already posted wins over the Oilers and Eagles this season, and if they repeat the feat they will be back at .500 on the season. 

Drumheller Dragons (25-15-3, 53 points, 3rd AJHL South)

A strong Dragons squad has performed below their expectations over their last 10 games, as a 3-5-2 stretch has allowed a red hot Okotoks Oilers team to leapfrog them for 2nd in the standings.  However, the Dragons have picked up points in three of their last four games and managed to fill the net over the same stretch, tallying 18 goals. Forward Brett Edwards is factoring in big time with a four game goal streak, tied for the longest current streak in the league with Bandits forward Nathan Plessis. 

This weekend, the Dragons will visit the Camrose Kodiaks on Friday and the Olds Grizzlys on Saturday.  Camrose and Drumheller have played some notably close games this season, with three of the first five being decided after 60 minutes of regulation play.  Drumheller has also had several close meetings with the Grizzlys, taking two of three while the loss came in – what else – overtime. 

Fort McMurray Oil Barons (21-14-7, 49 points, 4th AJHL North)

The Oil Barons have alternated loss-win over their first five games in January after they closed out 2018 on a three game win streak, with the most recent result being a tight, physical 2-1 setback to the Sherwood Park Crusaders.  Forward Liam Izyk has been very consistent with points in five straight games. 

Izyk and the MOB have another three-in-three road trip this weekend, facing the Lloydminster Bobcats on Friday before two tilts against the Bonnyville Pontiacs.  The Oil Barons are a combined 4-1-1 against these two divisional rivals and will work to improve that mark.

Grande Prairie Storm (21-20-2, 44 points, 5th AJHL North)

The Grande Prairie Storm have picked up three wins in their first five games of January and this weekend they’ll engage in a home-and-home against the Whitecourt Wolverines, who are just six points behind them in the standings.

The Storm will serve as hosts first, and forward Vincent Milot-Ouellet will look to push his point streak to 8 games.  Offence has certainly been a factor whenever the Storm find themselves throwing another tally on the win total, as all three of their January wins saw them score six goals or more. 

The Storm and Wolverines meet in Whitecourt on Saturday. 

Lloydminster Bobcats (8-35-1, 17 points, 8th AJHL North)

After winning their first game of 2019, the Bobcats have been unable to repeat the performance and have had a tough seven game slide.  That being said, the team’s performance under new head coach Nigel Dube has been more than enough to warrant a five year contract and the ‘Cats will look to continue being a threat every night, no matter their place in the standings. 

This weekend, the Bobcats play just a single game as they welcome the Fort McMurray Oil Barons on Friday night.  A top priority for the Bobcats will be keeping the puck out of the net, as they’ve allowed 25 goals in their last three games. 

This meeting with Fort McMurray is the last of the two team’s season series.

Okotoks Oilers (28-14-1, 57 points, 2nd AJHL South)

The only two things hotter than the Okotoks Oilers right now are the Brooks Bandits and the surface of the sun as the Oilers are 9-1 in their last 10 and have won five in a row.  The defending South champs are being paced by some star performances as forwards Quinn Olson, Dylan Holloway, and Austin Wong have respective point streaks of 13, 11, and 10 games.

The Oilers will look to continue their torrid play when they host the Sherwood Park Crusaders on Saturday and the Drayton Valley Thunder on Sunday.  The Oilers have beat the Crusaders already this season (4-1) while they will look to split their season series with Drayton Valley after the Thunder took the first game 2-1. 

The Oilers have scored at least four goals in five straight games.

Olds Grizzlys (4-36-3, 11 points, 8th AJHL South)

The Olds Grizzlys are simply not going away, and this weekend presents another opportunity to keep pace – or even pass – the Calgary Canucks for the final playoff spot in the division.  This weekend, opportunity manifests itself as games against the Calgary Mustangs and Drumheller Dragons, both played at the Olds Sportsplex.

The Grizzlys have yet to beat the Mustangs on the year, going 0-4, but have picked up a win against a strong Dragons team which came when Lukas Jirousek scored in overtime on December 11th

Sherwood Park Crusaders (32-8-2, 66 points, 1st AJHL North)

The top team in the North is on another roll, winning three straight and eight of their last ten.  They’ve also geared up for a run in the post-season, acquiring Lloydminster Bobcats captain Zach Kaiser at the January 10th trade deadline.

The Crusaders open up their weekend by visiting the Brooks Bandits, which will be one of the premier games of the weekend with the two top teams in the league going toe-to-toe.  On Saturday, the Crusaders continue their road trip against the Okotoks Oilers in what should be another stiff test for the Cru and a treat for Alberta’s Junior A hockey fans. 

The Crusaders will look to avenge an earlier January loss to Okotoks, who left Strathcona County with a 4-1 win on the 5th.  The Crusaders’ Garrett Clegg is also having a dandy time as of late: his 15-game point streak is the longest current run in the league.

Spruce Grove Saints (25-14-2, 52 points, 3rd AJHL North)

The Spruce Grove Saints have had one of the lighter January schedules in the league, as their weekend road trip against the Canmore Eagles and the Calgary Canucks will be just their 4th and 5th games of the month.  The Saints have picked up two wins in three games including a 1-0 shutout against their Friday night opponent – Canmore. 

As defending division champions, the Saints are running out of runway to catch the Sherwood Park Crusaders (14 points ahead) or Bonnyville (10 points ahead) for the first round playoff bye but are in a battle to secure home ice in the first round with the Oil Barons hot on their heels.

That being said, the Saints are still laden with players who earned a ring last April and a lengthy win streak to get back into the top two far from being out of the question.

Whitecourt Wolverines (18-24-2, 38 points, 7th AJHL North)

The Wolverines play both of their games this weekend against the Grande Prairie Storm in a back-to-back home and home series.  On the schedule, this looks like a standard weekend slate for two divisional rivals but for the Wolverines this also looks a lot like opportunity.

Whitecourt has clawed their way to a three game win streak and are just six points back of the Storm and trail the Drayton Valley Thunder by five points.  A team coached by Gord Thibodeau, the AJHL’s all-time winningest bench boss, certainly knows when the chips are down and the pot looks pretty sweet for the Wolverines this weekend.

The Wolverines have limited their opponents to just 4 goals in their win streak.

-Tom Strangward