With many Alberta Junior Hockey League teams closing in on their final 10 games of the season, the playoff picture, while still very unknown, is starting to see a few cracks of light through the shadows.
Six teams have already paid for their ticket to the post-season, as the Camrose Kodiaks, Brooks Bandits, Okotoks Oilers and Drumheller Dragons are no threat to fall to the dreaded eighth seed in the South, while over in the North, the Spruce Grove Saints didn't just clinch a playoff spot last weekend, they clinched the division, as their 23 point lead on the Lloydminster Bobcats – who also clinched a playoff spot last weekend – is more than can be made up in Lloydminster's last remaining 11 games.
Beyond those six, there is still some shuffle that could happen in the AJHL, and with 15 games scheduled this weekend, the start of the playoff push is officially open.
The Fort McMurray Oil Barons are the only team in the AJHL North who can lock up a playoff spot this weekend out of those still looking for a seat at the table. The magic number in the North Division is 58 points, and the Oil Barons are just a victory away from meeting that mark, sitting in third with 56 points. Their heavy schedule this weekend means they will get three whacks at it, starting with the division leading Saints on Friday, before Sherwood Park on Saturday and Drayton Valley on Sunday.
Fort McMurray, however, doesn't even need to win Friday to get a spot. Grande Prairie is in Sherwood Park on Friday night, and a single loss puts the Oil Barons in the playoffs. If the Storm do manage to get it done against the Crusaders, a dance with the Saints is set for Saturday.
It will be a hard road for the Storm to make the playoffs, and they are going to need to help themselves rather than relying on others. They currently sit four back of Drayton Valley for the final spot, but the Thunder still have two games in hand. The Thunder are home on Saturday and Sunday, welcoming the Calgary Canucks before the Oil Barons, and could start to ease some tension of their playoff hopes with a victory or two, mixed with some Storm losses.
Meanwhile, in the middle of the division, Bonnyville and Sherwood Park are battling for a first round playoff home game, as both clubs sit with 51 points, although, the Pontiacs have two games in hand. Bonnyville is home to Whitecourt on Saturday and the Bobcats on Sunday, while Sherwood Park has the Storm and Oil Barons.
Whitecourt, who has only played 46 games, is in Lloydminster Friday night and in Bonnyville Saturday. While sneaking up into the home-ice race might be out of the question, they could do themselves a favour this weekend by not getting involved with the bottom two.
Over in the South Division, only three playoff spots remain and the magic number is 54, which could be lower depending on how a Thursday night contest between both Calgary teams fairs.
The Mustangs, before Thursday night, sit 17 points back with only 12 left to play. Four more losses and their season comes to an end officially, and this weekend they have nothing on the schedule to help themselves.
The Olds Grizzlys are the only other team who can clinch a playoff birth this weekend, but would need a perfect weekend in their home-and-away with the Drumheller Dragons -and a Mustangs lose Thursday- to lock in their playoff spot.
Canmore and the Calgary Canucks can breathe a little easier themselves if they prove victorious, though the Eagles are up against the Oilers, while Calgary is on the road to Drayton.
And the top two in the South Division will lock up, as Camrose and Brooks play home-and-away on Friday and Saturday. The Bandits look to close the six point gap for the first round bye, while a sweep by the Kodiaks would put them 10 points up with just 11 games to go.
Time for the teams of the AJHL to make their move.
by Andrew Brethauer