AJHL Weekend Preview – January 23-25, 2015

With 14 games on tap this weekend around Alberta, much still has to be decided regarding the positioning for the start of the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Gas Drive Cup has yet to be determined.

So far, four teams — Spruce Grove, Camrose, Brooks and Okotoks — have punched their ticket to the playoffs with three more teams — Lloydminster, Fort McMurray and Drumheller — looking to accomplish similar feats this weekend.

Starting in the North Division, the Spruce Grove Saints (39-6-3) have all but wrapped up their seventh straight North Division regular season title and seemed poised to make a deep run into the playoffs, possessing the league’s best offence and defence, a trait that has them on an active 12-game winning streak.

As they host the Sherwood Park Crusaders (21-21-5) Friday night in their only game of the weekend, the Saints will enter the game 3-0-1 against the Cru this season. Recent Mount Royal University commit Jarid Hauptman, has three goals and eight points in his last four games.

As for the Cru, they’ll get a double dip of strong AJHL teams when the Brooks Bandits (34-10-1) come to town for a Saturday night date at the Sherwood Park Arena.

Starting 2015 off with a 2-2-1 record, the Cru aren’t in danger of missing the playoffs, but could give  up home ice advantage as the Bonnyville Pontiacs (20-19-6) and idle Whitecourt Wolverines (18-22-6) creep up on them in the Viterra North Division standings.

Before Brooks gets to Sherwood Park, they’ll make the trek to the Border City for a game against the Lloydminster Bobcats (26-15-6) Friday evening. For a second year in a row, the Bandits have started slow, but eventually resumed their championship calibre pace, going 22-5 since Nov. 1, though those five losses did include one 4-2 setback on home ice against the Bobcats Dec. 19.

For the moment, the Bobcats hold onto second place in the North Division, holding a four-point edge on the third place Oil Barons for that spot. After playing six of their first seven games in 2015 on the road — going 3-3-1 as a result — Friday’s game against Brooks will kick-off a three-game stretch at home that will continue with the Calgary Canucks (15-24-6) paying a visit to the Centennial Civic Centre Arena Saturday.

The two teams will meet exactly a week after the Canucks bested the Bobcats in a shootout at the Max Bell Arena. Canucks goaltender Colin Cooper has done his part to lift the Canucks up over their last nine games, going 4-3-1 in that span with one shutout and allowing two goals or less in six of those games.

Right after facing the Bobcats, the Canucks will close out their weekend with a game against an eagerly-awaiting Camrose Kodiaks (35-7-3) squad Sunday afternoon. The weekend finale for the Kodiaks marks a close to an all-Calgary weekend for the club following a Friday night duel against the Calgary Mustangs (13-31-3).

The Kodiaks have managed to fend off the Bandits for the division lead they’ve held all season, though a 3-3-1 record in their past seven games suddenly has Brooks within four points of the Kodiaks for the division lead.

On the other end of the ice Friday, the Mustangs will make one last stand to earn a playoff berth. The Mustangs’ offence has been all over the map in January, scoring nine goals against Olds, eight goals against Drayton Valley and throwing in being shutout and held to a single goal.

Staying in the South Division, the Canmore Eagles (21-23-1) and Olds Grizzlys (20-19-6) will play a home-and-home this weekend as both teams look to climb the standings and get one last shot at having home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Friday’s contest will take place in Olds, with Saturday’s rematch coming in Canmore. Since going all in at the Dec. 1 deadline, the Grizzlys have gone 6-7-2, losing lopsided games to the Mustangs and Canucks — twice each.

Going a solid 5-2 in December, the Eagles have gone 3-5 in January, giving them 43 points through 45 games and leaving them in sixth place in the division, well within the striking distance of the seventh-place Canucks.

The all South Division matchup of the Eagles and Grizzlys will be matched by an all North Division battle between the Drayton Valley Thunder (13-21-10) and Grande Prairie Storm (14-29-3) at Revolution Arena.

The two teams have played each other closely this year, with Grande Prairie earning a pair of 3-2 victories — one in a shootout — in addition to a 4-1 victory for the Thunder at the end of September.

Aside from exploding for six goals Dec. 16 against Sherwood Park, the Storm have dropped off offensively in their past 14 games, being held to one goal in five of those games and suffering a shutout in three other contests.

Drayton Valley meanwhile, have slumped back to seventh spot in the North Division, making the pair of games this weekend important for the two clubs separated by just five points heading into the final quarter of the season.

With three games left in January, the Thunder will try to avoid going three straight months with a single regulation win, a feat they achieved in November and December and would like to avoid doing so again.

The final four matches of the weekend will see the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (25-17-4) and Bonnyville Pontiacs (20-19-6) trade South Division opponents in visits from the Okotoks Oilers (28-12-5) and Drumheller Dragons (24-15-7).

Friday, the Oilers are in Fort McMurray. The MOB have lost both games against the Oilers this year — being outscored 9-4 in those two games combined — and are collectively 2-2 against the South Division this year inside their own building.

Saturday, the Oilers and Dragons exchange venues. The Dragons defeated the MOB in overtime in October at home, but will face a MOB team that has lost just twice in regulation in their past 10 home games.

The Dragons close out the weekend in Bonnyville Sunday, having suffered two 4-3 overtime defeats in their previous meetings with the Pontiacs this season.