AJHL Weekend Preview: January 22 – 24, 2016

Slowly but surely the Alberta Junior Hockey League inches closer towards the playoffs, with many teams in the AJHL hovering around the 15 game mark remaining. The last quarter of the season will paint the playoff picture in what is turning out to be a season will plenty of commotion in the middle of each division.

It's the time of year when coaches will say they want to begin hitting their stride as they prepare to play their best hockey just in time to make a long deep run in the post-season. And all eyes start to turn toward the standings, as playoff matchups start to become clear. After this weekend's 15 games, some magic numbers should start reveal who will lock up some positions or home ice in the first round, while a few teams are still in a battle to be playing past the 60 game mark.

The Brooks Bandits 16 game winning streak is still alive, but a busy weekend against RBC Cup hosts the Lloydminster Bobcats on Friday and division rivals the Camrose Kodiaks on Saturday could put an end to it. To put it into perspective, the Bandits have won more games in their current streak than five AJHL teams all season, while they also haven't felt a loss since Nov. 27 against Bonnyville.  With 208 goals for, the Bandits are the highest scoring team in the AJHL and have a +112 goal differential, and more importantly are on top of the South Division with 70 points.

Their Friday night opponent, the Lloydminster Bobcats, have one of the busiest schedules for the week, as after their Friday night tilt with the Bandits, they head to Okotoks on Saturday night, before finishing their swing of the South Division in Calgary against the Canucks. With the trade deadline behind them, Lloydminster has won their last two games and perhaps, more importantly, got away from the pressure of worrying about being traded. Entering the weekend in fourth place in the North Division, the Bobcats could jump into second with a clean sweep.

Camrose, just nine points back of the Bandits for top spot in the South Division, start the weekend in Olds on Friday night. The Kodiaks are in a comfortable position, 11 points up on Okotoks for second place with three games in hand heading into the weekend. They have also locked up home ice for the first round of the playoffs, so for the rest of the season it is maintaining a top spot to give them a favourable matchup in Round 1.

It's in the middle of the division where all the action lives, as one point separates Drumheller and Canmore for the final home-ice advantage spot in the playoffs. The Dragons are in Okotoks on Friday, while Canmore has busy three game weekend in the North Division, starting in Grande Prairie on Friday night, before making a swing through Whitecourt and Sherwood Park to end the weekend. By the end of the weekend, the Dragons and Eagles will have each played 46 games, leaving little room for error heading into the final 14 with home ice on the line.

The top of the North Division has three teams with just three points between them. Lloydminster's busy schedule will finally catch them up to games played with Whitecourt and Bonnyville, as the Pontiacs only have a Friday night game with Spruce Grove on their weekend schedule, while Whitecourt, who is dealing with a host of injuries, only has Canmore on Saturday night. With the Saints lead on the division growing every game, catching the top team may be a stretch with just 14 games to go.

Grande Prairie announced this week they need help saving the team. A playoff spot could go a long way to helping. Currently the Storm are one point up on the Fort McMurray Oil Barons with two games in hand as they welcome Canmore and the Calgary Mustangs this weekend. It's a chance for the Storm to put a gap -albeit a small one- between them and the Oil Barons, who play Drayton Valley twice this weekend on the road. Saving the team isn't just an off-ice movement, as the players themselves will have to do their best to give their fans some playoff hockey again.

by Andrew Brethauer