It’s crunch time in the Alberta Junior Hockey League as all teams have less than 25 games left in their regular seasons. In both the North and South Divisions, the standings are tight and whether teams find themselves near the top or fighting for a playoff spot, there’s meaningful hockey to be played over the next two months until the final night of the regular season on March 3rd.
One of the first games on the weekend schedule is a rematch of last year’s Inter Pipeline Cup Final between the Spruce Grove Saints (23-13-2) and the Okotoks Oilers (23-14-1) at the Grant Fuhr Arena. Not only were these last year’s respective division champions, but they are also both currently occupying third place in their respective divisions. Out of the break, the Saints recorded a big statement 9-3 win against the North-leading Sherwood Park Crusaders (28-7-2) to snap a three-game losing streak while the Oilers have won 8 of their last 10 but will be hungry after a 7-2 loss to the Brooks Bandits (35-3-0) earlier this week.
Speaking of the two division leaders, the Crusaders will also be at home on Friday as the Canmore Eagles (20-14-3) fly into Strathcona County. The two teams have yet to meet this year and the Eagles will look to continue filling the nets of opponents since Christmas and try and prevent them from doing the same – Canmore has lit the lamp 15 times while seeing their own red light go off 15 times in the last three games. Meanwhile, the Brooks Bandits will visit the Drumheller Dragons (23-12-2) who trail the Bandits by 22 points despite being in second place in the South. It would certainly take a Herculean effort to derail the Bandits this season, but Drumheller counts themselves as one of the three teams to do it. Brooks is 2-1 against the Dragons this season, but have been outscored by Drumheller 13-12 in the contests. Drumheller is the only team in the AJHL to have a positive goal differential against the Bandits.
The rest of Friday’s games will take place in North Division rinks, including a pair of interdivisional matchups. In Bonnyville, the Pontiacs (27-8-2) will look to flex on the Olds Grizzlys (4-32-3). The Grizzlys had a notably rough start but have steadily improved as the year has gone on and find themselves just two points back of the final playoff spot in the South Division. The Pontiacs have won three in a row, but have played those three games over a stretch of 17 days. The game against the Grizzlys will be Bonnyville’s first home game since December 1st, as the RJ Lalonde Arena was busy hosting the World Junior A Challenge.
The other interdivisional game will have the Calgary Mustangs (18-13-6) saddle up to take on the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (19-11-7) at the Casman Centre. The two teams met in Calgary last month in a meeting the Mustangs took 5-2. Reigning AJHL Player of the Month Joseph Karpyshyn racked up three points in the contest, as did Tanner Klassen and Chase Miller. The Mustangs have spurred their way to four straight victories entering the new year while the Oil Barons have strung together three straight decisions.
The final two Friday games are all-north matchups, as the Whitecourt Wolverines (15-23-2) have a pivotal game against the Thunder (15-18-4) in Drayton Valley. The Thunder have three games in hand on Whitecourt and a two-point cushion while the Lloydminster Bobcats (8-28-1) trail the Wolverines by 15 points for the last playoff spot but also have three games in hand. While the Wolverines and Thunder collide, those Bobcats will be facing a Storm (18-18-2) of their own in Grande Prairie. The Bobcats are coming off a win over the Wolverines on Wednesday, so a road victory against the Storm would be huge for their playoff hopes. Grande Prairie, meanwhile, looks to snap a two game slide.
All 16 teams are in action on Saturday and the two teams who sat out Friday night will meet in Camrose as the Kodiaks (20-12-6) face the Calgary Canucks (6-32-1). The Kodiaks are a perfect 4-0 against the Canucks so far this season but have dropped three straight games on home ice, with their last Encana Arena victory coming on December 8th against Whitecourt. The Canucks have plenty to play for as they have a razor thin two-point edge over the Olds Grizzlys for the last playoff spot in the South and are looking to shake off a four-game losing streak. The last meeting between these two (a back-and-forth 5-3 win by Camrose) saw 22 minutes of penalties racked up in the final period.
The Spruce Grove Saints and Sherwood Park Crusaders will trade opponents, as the Saints welcome the Canmore Eagles and the Crusaders host the Okotoks Oilers. The two games will see the opponents play each other for the first time this season. The Fort McMurray Oil Barons and Bonnyville Pontiacs will also trade opponents, as the Calgary Mustangs head south to Bonnyville while the Olds Grizzlys trek up to the Mac. In October, the Pontiacs skated to a 5-2 win against the Mustangs while the Oil Barons have yet to play the Grizzlys this season.
The remaining three Saturday games are rematches, as the Drumheller Dragons will head to Brooks for the second half of a home-and-home against the Bandits, the Drayton Valley Thunder will host the Whitecourt Wolverines for the second consecutive night and the Lloydminster Bobcats will wrap up an extended stay in Grande Prairie with another tilt against the Storm.
This weekend, there are no games scheduled on Sunday.
-Tom Strangward, @TomStrangward