AJHL Weekend Preview: January 29 – 31, 2016

For a season that seemed so long at the beginning of September, just 109 games remain in the 2015-16 Alberta Junior Hockey League regular season. With 10 teams having already claimed spots in the 2016 AJHL Gas Drive Cup Playoffs, battles for positioning are ramping up in the final weekend of January.

The Viterra AJHL South Division-leading Brooks Bandits (36-7-2) will play a home-and-home series against the Canmore Eagles (20-22-4) beginning at the Centennial Regional Arena Friday night.

Throughout the first four games of their season series, the Bandits hold a 3-0-1 record against the Eagles, outscoring them by a 24-8 margin. For their overall season, the Bandits are on a scoring rampage, which has them on pace to finish slightly ahead of their regular season goal total in the 2012-13 season, when they won the Royal Bank Cup. Mid-season acquisition Landon Welykholowa has nine goals and 20 points in 18 games since joining the Bandits, including six goals and nine points in his past six games.

A 2-8 slide in their past 10 games has quickly dropped the Eagles into some dangerous territory as they try to maintain home-ice advantage. Losses in January to the teams clamouring behind them for their spot in the standings hasn’t helped their case either. A pivotal four-game homestand in mid-February will reveal which direction this team heads for the course of the season.

In another all-South Division weekend doubleheader, the Camrose Kodiaks (31-11-3) and Drumheller Dragons (19-23-5) will play their fourth and fifth meetings of the season against each other, with both looking to gain important traction in the standings.

The Kodiaks still find themselves within striking range of the Bandits for first place in the South Division with 15 games to go. An incredible feat already, the Kodiaks would like to press for that first round bye and it starts with keeping up their momentum against teams below them in the standings for the final quarter of the season. Kodiaks forward Cole McBride has seven goals and 12 points in his past eight games. 

On the Dragons’ end, these two games end a tough 12-game January for the club that will end up featuring seven games against the four teams ahead of them in the South Division standings. Even with a tough schedule, the Dragons have a modest 4-5-1 record. The bad news for them is that the schedule doesn’t let up for them in February as they play Spruce Grove, Brooks, Lloydminster before a back-to-back set against Okotoks, a challenge that will determine the course of their season as well. Goaltender Jonny Hogue is 5-3-1 with a .910 save percentage and one shutout since the start of December.

Friday’s action in the AJHL Viterra North Division is highlighted by a marquee matchup between the Spruce Grove Saints (40-6-3) and Lloydminster Bobcats (34-10-2). As the final regular season meeting between the two clubs, a chance to steal two important points from a division rival will be tempting to both clubs and should bring out the best both teams have to offer.

As teams have been trying to catch the Saints, the back-to-back Gas Drive Cup champions haven’t been perfect, but have taken points where they could get them, losing just two games in regulation since the start of November, a span of 28 games with a record of 23-2-3 in those games. Goaltender Matthew Murray has been a big part of that success, but the addition of Ravi Dattani at the trade deadline has helped as well, with the 1995-born goaltender sporting a 4-0-1 record, 1.51 goals against average and a save percentage of .944 with one shutout.

The Bobcats will be eager to get out of the month of January after losses to Camrose, Spruce Grove and Brooks. Granted, it’s better for the RBC Cup hosts to lose these games now rather than in the middle of May, the Bobcats have a steep mountain to climb if they want to make a deep run into the playoffs. Forward Morgan Messenger has been held pointless in just two of his past 15 games, recording seven goals and 19 points in the other 13 games.

Two South Division teams, the Okotoks Oilers (25-20-2) and Olds Grizzlys (16-26-2) will make their way north this weekend. The Grizzlys take on the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (7-33-7) Friday, travel to face the Bonnyville Pontiacs (30-11-7) Saturday and wrap up their trip Sunday afternoon against the Bobcats at the Centennial Civic Centre Arena.

Slotted into sixth place in the South Division, the final 16 games of the season will be telling for a Grizzlys club that start slow out of the gate, but have since improved steadily. Victories over the Kodiaks and Eagles in January aid that statement, though after scoring just five goals in three games against the Bandits this month, it’s clear the Grizzlys will have to temper their expectations for this season and look towards closing the gap between them and the Dragons and Eagles before the season is done.

Games against the Bobcats and Pontiacs are good chances for the club to show they can handle the best the North Division has to throw at them. One of the players they’ll need in order to take down those two powerhouse teams is Wyatt Noskey, who has been scoring at a torrid pace since the start of December, with nine goals and 34 points in 17 games.

Okotoks will hit up two of those destinations, visiting Fort McMurray Saturday and taking on the Pontiacs Sunday. With 13 games left in their season, the Oilers find themselves firmly locked into third place in the South Division, 13 points back of the second-lace Kodiaks and eight points ahead of the fourth-place Eagles. Stuck in the middle themselves, so too has their record been over the past 10 games,

The Oilers are 2-4 inside North Division rinks this year and facing two teams headed in opposite directions. It’ll be interesting to see whether they play more towards the level of their opponents Saturday or Sunday. Matt McNair record his third hat trick of the season last weekend against Drumheller and another flash of offence could be the spark the Oilers need going forward.

As for their opponents, the Pontiacs are in a dogfight for second place in the AJHL North Division, trailing the second place Wolverines by four points and the Bobcats by three points. Defenceman Brinson Pasichnuk will likely play in his 100th career AJHL game this weekend, looking to become the first Pontiacs’ blue liner crack the 50-point plateau in a season since Matthew Register recorded 61 points in the 2009-10 AJHL season.

It’s fitting that Pasichnuk could reach the 50-point threshold on the same night the Pontiacs retire the jersey of alumni and current Edmonton Oiler Mark Letestu. His pre-game ceremony will begin Saturday at 7 p.m. 

The MOB find themselves in a familiar situation, staring down two tough opponents as they fight to get into the playoffs. A 1-7-1 record in January hasn’t done much to help their plight, but has tied them on points with the Storm for that elusive seventh spot. The Barons will need to kick their offence into high gear to secure that spot, scoring just 2.22 goals per game this month.

While two teams head north, the Sherwood Park Crusaders (29-15-2) will be the lone team heading south as they square off against the Calgary Canucks (15-28-3) Saturday and the Calgary Mustangs (9-38-3) Sunday.

With the majority of the attention on the league’s class of 1998-born players focusing on Saints players Brandon Biro and Matthew Murray, Cru forward Ty Readman has had a more than productive start in his first full AJHL season, scoring 11 goals and 26 points in 42 games, including two game-winning goals.

For the Canucks, their fate seems sealed in sixth or seventh place. Unable to overcome the Grizzlys for that sixth spot in recent weeks, they remain just a point out of the spot with 14 games left in their season and plenty of hockey to play. For a club that hasn’t advanced past the first round since the 2011-12 season, the Canucks appear to be headed for a tough first round matchup yet again in Camrose or Okotoks.  If they find some consistency with rookie Andrew Marshall, forward Ben Assad and defenceman Allan MacPherson for the remainder of this year and next, the Canucks may have a good shot at breaking that streak.

The Mustangs are in a familiar position with their season dwindling down, facing a 12-point hole to overcome the Canucks. Recent memory will focus on the amazing run by the Mustangs to close out last season, where they overtook the Canucks in the final handful of games to clinch a playoff spot. Second-year forward Anthony Orubor is having himself a breakout season, with 25 points in 41 games, including a goal and three points in his last four games.

Facing an uphill battle and tight playoff race with the MOB , the Grande Prairie Storm (9-33-3) will face three tough opponents on their quest to correct their season’s trajectory, travelling to face the Drayton Valley Thunder (18-23-4) Friday, heading to Spruce Grove to battle the Saints Saturday and finishing off the weekend at the Scott Safety Centre against the Whitecourt Wolverines (33-8-5) Sunday.

The Storm will be looking to end January on a positive note after a 1-7 start to 2016. Doing that against the Thunder, Saints and Wolverines will be easier said than done though, with the Storm sporting a combined 2-11-1 record against the three teams combined this season. The Storm are more than due for a victory over the Saints, with the three year anniversary of their last victory — albeit in overtime — passing Friday Jan. 29.

Rookie Storm defenceman Carter Wolski is leading all blue liners and rookies on his team with one goal and 15 points.

Drayton Valley, who will host the Wolverines Saturday as game five of a six-game homestand, have gone through an up and down January, suffering through lopsided defeats at the hands of Saints, Pontiacs and Bobcats, while scoring a victory on the road against the Oilers.

Though it’s not mathematically certain yet, it’s almost a forgone conclusion that the Thunder will finish sixth in the division. After closing out this current set of home games, seven of the Thunder’s final 12 games will come on the road, where they’re 5-16-2 this season. Austin Yaremchuk continues to lead the Thunder on the blue line with 14 points in 17 games since his trade from the Lloydminster Bobcats. Yaremchuk will also play in the 200th games of his AJHL career this weekend.

The Wolverines continued to hang onto second place in the North Division into 2016, with an 8-1-1 record in their past 10 games aiding their cause. As good as their 18-5-1 record at home is, their 15-3-4 record on the road is one of the best in league and will have every chance to improve heading into the playoffs.

Suffering through injuries to key players in Erik Pedersen and Justin Young among — many — others, goaltender Garrett Mason has proved to be a welcomed addition to the club, winning his first four starts with the club and sporting a 2.5 goals against average in that span. Mason could put himself in some unique company with his next win, adding himself to the list of goaltenders to win at least five games with three different teams in the same season.

By Robert Murray