AJHL Weekend Preview: January 26th-28th

With just over a month left in the 2017/2018 AJHL Season, all eyes are beginning to focus on the standings.  While no team is mathematically eliminated from post season contention, the Whitecourt Wolverines, Fort McMurray Oil Barons and Spruce Grove Saints have clinched a playoff spots in the North Division while the Brooks Bandits and Okotoks Oilers have stamped their ticket to the post season dance in the South Division. 

The team furthest out of the playoffs has also been among the most improved since a coaching change and this weekend, the Drayton Valley Thunder (11-32-3) will fight for their playoff lives in one of their biggest games of the year against the Lloydminster Bobcats (17-27-2).  With the Thunder trailing the Bobcats by eleven points and with two games left against the ‘Cats, Friday night’s matchup in Drayton Valley is a virtual must win for the Thunder if they are to celebrate their 20th season with a playoff berth.  While this big game is the only one for the Thunder this weekend, the Bobcats are hoping to bolster the last playoff spot in the North with a win against the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (32-8-3).  The Oil Barons trail the Spruce Grove Saints (35-8-3) by six points for 1st place in the North but also have three games in hand and one more matchup against the Saints which goes tomorrow night in Wainwright.  The neutral site game is to accommodate a curling championship held in the city of Spruce Grove and will see the two rivals square off for the second last time this season. 

The Saints and Oil Barons will both close out their weekend schedule against the Bonnyville Pontiacs (16-23-7) at the RJ Lalonde Centre.  The Saints will play the Pontiacs on Saturday night while the Oil Barons make their visit Sunday afternoon.  The last meeting between the Saints and Pontiacs was very physical, with each team seeing a player suspended after the game.

Shift to the South Division, the playoff race is defined by one word: parity.  The Drumheller Dragons (22-20-3) and the Calgary Mustangs (19-24-5) are separated by just four points in the standings (though the Dragons do have three games in hand) and they will meet for a home and home series this weekend.  The action starts on Saturday night in Drumheller before shifting to the Father David Bauer Arena in Calgary for an early afternoon matchup.  Both teams are looking to turn the tide, though it’s Calgary who is on the longer slide with eight straight defeats.  The Mustangs, looking to make a return to the playoffs as one of the most improved teams over last season, are currently tied for 4th in the South with their cross-town rivals the Calgary Canucks (21-24-1) though the Canucks have two games in hand. 

The Canucks are on the road this weekend against a pair of divisional rivals who are right behind them in the standings with games against the Camrose Kodiaks (15-18-11) and the Canmore Eagles (19-25-2).  The Canucks have a three point lead over the Kodiaks, but Camrose has two games in hand while the Eagles have the same amount of games played but trail the Canucks by three points.  Both the Eagles and Kodiaks are looking to snap brief losing streaks of one and two games respectively, but overall have been losing ground with a combined five wins in each of their last ten games played. 

The Calgary Canucks also share the exact same weekend schedule as the Brooks Bandits (33-11-1) as they are also set to play Canmore and Camrose.  On Friday, the Bandits will look to add to a six game win streak against the Eagles at home before heading north to play the Kodiaks on Saturday night.  The Bandits trail the 1st place Okotoks Oilers (37-6-2) by nine points and will likely need some help if they are to surpass Okotoks for a third straight division championship and the first round playoff bye it affords. 

The Oilers have an opportunity to not just keep the Bandits in their rearview mirror, but build a double digit win streak as they sit at nine in a row as they embark on a rigorous three games in three days road trip through the AJHL North.  Their first matchup could be a high scoring affair in Grande Prairie as the Oilers visit the Storm (22-20-3) and their potent offence.  The Storm will be looking to keep a streak of their own alive, as taking down the Oilers would give them their 4th straight victory.  From Grande Prairie, the Oilers will bus to Whitecourt to take on another top team in the North, the Wolverines (28-12-5), before closing out their trip against the Sherwood Park Crusaders (21-21-2) on Sunday afternoon. 

At the opposite end of the South standings, the 8th place Olds Grizzlys (15-29-2) aim to keep their playoff hopes alive with the exact same northern road swing.  The Grizzlys will visit the Crusaders on Friday, the Storm on Saturday and the Wolverines on Sunday.  The Grizzlys trail the Canmore Eagles by eight points for the final playoff spot in the south with fourteen games to play.

-Tom Strangward @TheOneNDTom