AJHL Weekend Preview: January 27th-29th

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While the 14-game schedule on the final weekend of January presents another opportunity for teams to get back into the playoff race, or simply create space between themselves and a rival, making all 14 games interesting, two games in the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Viterra North Division will take the spotlight this weekend.

When the Whitecourt Wolverines (32-10-4) and Bonnyville Pontiacs (28-13-4) meet for a pair of games at the RJ Lalonde Arena Saturday and Sunday, history will be on the line for Wolverines head coach Gord Thibodeau.

The long-time bench boss can tie the legendary Don Phelps as the winningest coach in AJHL history with a pair of victories. The weekend also comes as an important one for both clubs. The Wolverines recently clawed their way back into first place in the Viterra AJHL North Division and likely want to stay atop the heap until the end of the regular season. Mitch Lipon is on an 11-game point streak with five goals and 16 points in that span.

The Pontiacs meanwhile have been slipping in recent weeks, finding themselves at the bottom of the four-team pileup in the division. The Yaks have produced a 3-4 record in the month of January and a pair of wins would put them on the positive side of the equation coming into February, but the team’s offence isn’t generating at the rate it was before the holiday break. Producing at a rate of 4.74 goals per game over their first 38 contests, their average over the past seven games has been at 2.86 goals per game. There’s still plenty of time to turn things around, but in an unforgiving division, the road to the top grows longer with each step backwards.

A familiar battle between two of the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s top two teams in recent years will also take place this weekend.

Friday, the Brooks Bandits (37-3-4) and Spruce Grove Saints (30-14-2) will kick-off the weekend. A rematch of the AJHL Gas Drive Cup Final from three of the past four seasons, both teams will be looking at earning the two points for different reasons.

The Bandits, already operating at a .886 winning percentage this year, would love to continue their progression towards the record books. As of this weekend, they’re on pace to be the only team in the league to reach the 100-point plateau and it feels as though it’s just a matter of time until they clinch the best overall regular season record.

Their weekend also includes a Saturday date against the Drayton Valley Thunder (11-29-4). Fittingly, their last loss in a North Division rink came at the Grant Fuhr Arena during the 2016 Gas Drive Cup Final. Since that series, they’re 13-1-2 and a perfect 6-0 inside North Division rinks.

For the Saints, they got the upper-hand against the Bandits in their only other regular season meeting, coming away with a 4-3 overtime win back on Nov. 5. They’ll also be in need of two points as the Viterra AJHL North Division tightens up in the race towards the end of the regular season. Forward Brett Smythe is two games shy of 200 for his AJHL career, which began in the 2013-14 season and spanned stints on three different North Division teams. Smythe also has four goals and six points in his last three contests.

After Friday’s meeting, the Saints will play host to the Lloydminster Bobcats (9-32-3) for the final time this season with the season series shifting back to the Border City for the final two games of the season series in early February and March. The Bobcats will continue onto Drayton Valley after their game Saturday for a Sunday date against the Thunder.

As obvious as it may be, sparking the team’s offence will likely end up being the key to the Bobcats’ success. They’ve scored just a single goal in five of their nine contests throughout 2017 and been held to just one lighting of the lamp in 14 of their 44 contests. Despite that, they enter their final 16 games five points behind the Thunder for the final playoff spot in the North Division.

As the final meeting of the season between the two clubs, the Thunder will be looking to take the outright victory in the season series against the Bobcats, furthering their cause to remain on the inside of the playoff situation. The home team has won four of the five meetings in the season series, with the Thunder taking the last meeting on Jan. 14 in overtime. Rhett Wilcox has a pair of goals and eight points in his last three contests., including a three point game against the Bobcats

The Viterra AJHL South Division will also feature their share of interesting games this weekend. The Thunder’s weekend will feature a visit from the Camrose Kodiaks (25-18-3), who are steadily climbing back into the South Division picture.

Now just eight points behind the Okotoks Oilers (28-14-5), the Kodiaks are fighting their way forward at a critical juncture in the season. Their weekend will begin on the road against the Thunder, but conclude at home Saturday against the Calgary Mustangs (8-35-2).

This weekend represents a must-win opportunity for the Kodiaks. Not just because they’re teams beneath them in the standings, but because of how their final 12 games will shape up after this weekend. Three games against the Bandits, one against the Saints and another duel against the Oilers all represent strong test for the Kodiaks. They’re games the Kodiaks are certainly capable of winning if required, but to leave winning those games as a last resort option to salvage positioning may not be the best idea. Bryson Traptow will play in his 150th AJHL game this weekend. Mackenzie Bauer sits two points shy of 100 for his AJHL career.

For the Mustangs, they face an uphill battle, but all is not lost with their season just yet. Yuri Chernichko’s first career AJHL hat trick Tuesday helped led the Mustangs to their second win in three games. Sitting 11 points back of the last playoff spot in the South, it is still mathematically possible for the Mustangs to make it into the post-season. Two battles in February against the seventh place Olds Grizzlys (12-28-5) will serve as do-or-die contests for the Mustangs.

Clinging onto second place in the division, the Oilers will travel up the Queen Elizabeth II Highway Saturday for their lone game of the weekend against the Grizzlys. The Oilers are only two points up on the Calgary Canucks (28-15-3) for that number two seed and will be trying to buck a 4-6 record in their last 10 games when they visit the Grizzlys. Defenceman Jordan Davies is four games shy of 200 for his AJHL career. Trey Degraaf is one point shy of reaching the 50-point plateau for the first time in his career. Three goals in his last two games brought him above the 20-goal plateau for the second time in his junior hockey career, which has been spent entirely with the Oilers.

In a bit of good fortune for the Oilers, they’ll face a Grizzlys team that is 1-9 in their last 10 and have just won six home games this season. Their last home win came Dec. 13, 2016 against the Saints. As bad as the Grizzlys have been, they’ll likely find their way into the playoffs once the season is all said and done barring a major collapse. February will also be a challenging month for the Grizzlys due to a gruelling 11 games in 25 days starting Feb. 3.

Before the Oilers and Grizzlys meet, the Canmore Eagles (23-16-5) will flock over to the Olds Sportsplex for their final regular season meeting. The Eagles will be going for their seventh straight victory over the Grizzlys dating back to Jan. 12, 2016. The Eagles have averaged six goals per game over those six contests. Logan Ferguson has been held off the scoresheet in just three of his last 18 games. He has nine goals and 29 points in that span.

The Eagles’ weekend will continue Saturday as they host the Canucks. The Canucks are in a prime position to take over second place in the South Division this weekend. Before Saturday’s game in Canmore, they’ll travel east to face the Drumheller Dragons (20-22-4). The Canucks started out January a perfect 3-0, but have since dropped three of their past five games. Their record is still good, it’s just forced them into a dogfight for home-ice advantage in the South Division.

With plenty of time left in the season, just 10 points separates the second place Oilers from the fifth place Eagles. Anything and everything could happen in the next 10-15 games that will ultimately impact home-ice advantage and the course of the season for some teams.

The Dragons, who play just the lone contest against the Canucks this weekend could also find themselves in the race for home-ice advantage. They sit nine points behind the Kodiaks for that last claim to home-ice in the first round of the playoffs. Ironically, to get those extra home games, success will need to come on the road, with 10 of their final 14 regular season games coming away from the Drumheller Memorial Arena. That stretch of away games begins abruptly this coming Tuesday with their now-annual battle in Banff against the Eagles. Their 7-10-3 record on the road is less than desirable, but it also presents an opportunity for the Dragons to grow into a stronger club heading into the playoffs.

As important as the Whitecourt/Bonnyville matchup will be this weekend, another important North Division battle will also take place at the Casman Centre when the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (33-10-1) host the Sherwood Park Crusaders (26-17-1) for a pair of games.

The MOB won the first three games of the season series, all held in Sherwood Park, and will welcome the Cru to a building they’re 16-6-1 in this season. The MOB are also presently the hottest team in the North Division winning nine straight games. They’ll have to fight forward without two key players for the time being, missing forward Will Conley and defenceman JC Thivierge for extended periods. A positive addition for the team will see Stefan Wood suit up in his first game for the MOB since being acquired earlier this month from the Dragons. Taner Miller could become the third MOB blue liner to reach the 30-point mark this weekend.

The Cru are in need of four points as much as the Barons are, if not more. Their present position of fifth place is more than safe from the bottom three teams in the division, but the desire to join the leaders at the top of the division is also on their mind. The Cru are 7-3 in their last 10 games, being led by the only 30-goal scorer in the league at the moment in Tyler Maltby. Ty Readman is also helping to lead the Cru’s offensive contributions, reaching 50 points for the 2016-17 campaign thanks to four goals and 11 points in his last six games.

Idle this weekend are the Grande Prairie Storm (12-30-6), who sit in sixth place in the North Division. They’re leading the three-team heap of them, Drayton Valley and Lloydminster, appearing bound for the post-season for the first time since the 2012-13 season.

Robert Murray