AJHL Weekend Preview: January 7 – 10, 2016

As the second weekend of play in the 2016 portion of the Alberta Junior Hockey League commences, playoff positioning will continue to be the focal point for each of the 16 games on the slate from Friday through Sunday.

Riding an 11-game winning streak, the Brooks Bandits (29-6-2) have started the New Year in dominant fashion, scoring 17 goals in a home-and-home against the Olds Grizzlys (14-21-2) last weekend. Facing the Drumheller Dragons (17-19-4) in another home-and-home series — beginning Friday in Drumheller — the Bandits will bring a number of offensive threats to the table, including Derek Lodermeier, an import-forward and Vermont Catamount-committed player who has points in 15 of his last 16 games.

The Dragons meanwhile have fought their way back up the standings in the Viterra AJHL South Division, earning points in eight of their last nine games (6-1-2), pulling themselves within two points of the Canmore Eagles (18-16-4) for fourth place in the division and home-ice advantage in the first round.

Import winger Matt Muzyka has three goals — all on the powerplay — and six points in his last three games. in seven December games, he registered four multi-point games and finished with three goals and nine points in that span.

Speaking of the Eagles, they’ll host the Camrose Kodiaks (27-8-3) for a pair of games this weekend that will play into the standings and playoff seedings even more. The Eagles are on the bubble of having home-ice advantage in a playoff series during the 2016 Gas Drive Cup and while it seems unlikely they’ll reach Brooks or Camrose, the Okotoks Oilers (22-15-2) are still very much within reach.

Eagles forward Logan Ferguson has two goals and 11 points in his last seven games.

On Camrose’s side, they’re 3-0 in 2016, recording five goals in each of those games. Sitting three points shy of the Bandits for the division lead, the Kodiaks have played one more game than the Bandits, so losing more ground at this point in the season doesn’t do them any favours. Forward Nelson Gadoury recently hit the 200-point plateau for his AJHL career, while also reaching the 50-point threshold for the first time in his career.

Moving north, the tight race in the top half of the Viterra AJHL North Division will get a little tighter this weekend with three games featuring the Spruce Grove Saints (32-6-2), Bonnyville Pontiacs (27-9-7) and Lloydminster Bobcats (29-8-2).

Friday, the Pontaics square off in Lloydminster with the Bobcats, followed by a Pontiacs and Saints matchup Saturday night. Closing out the weekend Sunday will be the Bobcats and the Saints.

The Saints added winger Dondre Watson and goaltender Ravi Dattani in separate trades this week, bolstering their already over-flowing talent pool. Saints starter Matthew Murray, one of two Saints and nine AJHLers named to Team West for the CJHL Prospects Games, recently picked up win number 30 for his AJHL career. He’s also 3-1 against the Pontiacs and Bobcats this year with a combined 3.44 goals against average in those games.

For Bonnyville, the Pontiacs are on a four-game winning streak extending back to Dec. 18, 2015 and have also taken points from 19 of their last 21 games dating back to the start of November. With 41 points, Brinson Pasichnuk is leading all AJHL defencemen in scoring and could become the first defenceman since Eagles blue liner to finish in the top 10 scoring for the league.

On Lloydminster’s end, fourth place in the North Division likely wasn’t exactly how they envisioned beginning 2016, but with the opportunity to best two teams ahead of them in the standings, the Bobcats could find themselves as high as second place. It isn’t the most comfortable way to approach their Royal Bank Cup hosting duties, but the talent on the roster still offers plenty of promise for the coming months. Forward Kevin Darrar recently had a seven-game point streak snapped last weekend against the Kodiaks, and him starting the offensive engines again could provide a boost to the players around him.

As the brief holder of the coveted second place spot in the North Division, the Whitecourt Wolverines (29-7-4) will wrap up a five-game homestead when they host the Olds Grizzlys Saturday and Calgary Canucks (11-25-2) Sunday.

The Wolverines extended their winning streak to five-games Wednesday with a victory over the Sherwood Park Crusaders and improved to 15-5-1 as the home team this season. As the top offence and second-best defence in the division, it’s hard to poke any holes in analyzing the Wolverines and this year feels like the year they’ll make it back to the AJHL North Division Final after two straight first round exits at the hands of the Bobcats.

Visiting them will be the Grizzlys and Canucks who will be making their way to Revolution Arena on the weekend as well to face the Grande Prairie Storm (8-28-3). Wyatt Noskey has quietly built a strong season for himself, tallying six goals and 20 points in his last 10 games as the Grizzlys have put up a so-so 4-6 record over their past 10 games.

The Canucks meanwhile will try to gain some ground on the Grizzlys, who sit six points ahead of them in the South Division standings. Entering this weekend, the Canucks are 4-9 against the North Division this season and have yet to win back-to-back games against the North Division in this campaign.

In Grande Prairie, the Storm started 2016 with a pair of losses to the Bobcats, but will look to widen their lead in the last playoff spot against two South Division clubs they beat by identical 7-3 scores in late November. With a home record of 5-12-3, the Storm’s key to distancing themselves in the playoff race will come down to those games, with nine of their final 21 games at home.

Staying in northern Alberta, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (6-28-6) and Sherwood Park Crusaders (24-14-2) will wrap up the Fort McMurray portion of their season series this weekend with a pair of important games for both clubs.

Just one point out of a playoff spot, the MOB have missed several opportunities to climb into that playoff position, but time is running out for the team. A five-game home stand could change their fortunes around in a heartbeat and it could be just the spark they need. As a club that put the word ‘rebuilding’ all over their team, they made good on that branding Wednesday, dealing Ravi Dattani to the Spruce Grove Saints in exchange for future considerations.

That means the MOB will have to make their push for a playoff spot with rookie goaltender Eric Szudor (0-7-2, 4.34 GAA, .879%) and recently-signed net minder Forbes Ploszaj, who recently played in the BCHL.

For the Cru, these two games provide a chance to gain ground in the playoff race and join the upper-echelon of the division in contending for home-ice advantage in the first round and potentially beyond. The recently-committed duo of Ryan Kruper and Tyler Maltby have combined for four goals and 12 points in the past five games. Despite the constant scoring from the pair, the Cru have a sluggish 3-7 record in their past 10 games and will need to see an improvement if they want to contend for a higher spot.

Closing out the weekend, the Drayton Valley Thunder (15-19-4) will battle the Okotoks Oilers (22-15-2) Saturday and Calgary Mustangs (6-33-3) Sunday after the Oilers and Mustangs meet Friday in Okotoks.

The Thunder recently concluded a stretch of four straight games against the Pontiacs with four losses, extending their losing streak to six games. Missing goaltender Brett Zarowny — who appeared in just two games — has hurt the team after they traded their starting goaltender at the time in Garrett Mason. His return could help to spark a team that sits seventh in the division in offence, sixth in offence and has a 2-8 record over their last 10 games.

For the Oilers and the Mustangs, both teams are at the opposite spectrum getting into the thick of the final third of the season. A 16-4 record at home is one of the league’s best and will be on further display this weekend. The duo of Matt McNair and Colin O’Neill have 21 of their combined 33 goals and 44 of their combined 74 points when the Oilers served as the home team and should continue to be offensive threats this weekend.

As for the Mustangs, they are still just nine points behind the Canucks for the final playoff spot.  The team could conceivably pull off another run akin to last year in order to sneak into the playoffs, though a lot would have to go their way in order for that to happen, including the Canucks losing all of the four games they have in hand on the Mustangs.