Photo – Fort McMurray Oil Barons:
Story By Robert Murray @NovaCanuck:
With 14 games scheduled this weekend in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, the division races are heating up as teams fight to create space around them.
In the always-competitive Viterra AJHL South Division, the Calgary Canucks (15-6-1) enter the weekend with the division lead theirs, though they’ll have to stay hot if they want to keep it in their grasp. Their lone game of the weekend goes Friday against the Olds Grizzlys (7-10-2).
A 10-4-1 record against their own division has helped keep the Canucks where they are. The first two meetings of the regular season series were split between the two clubs on opening weekend back in September, though the Canucks only lost in a shootout.
Matthew Painchaud is one of the players the Canucks will be looking to for offensive production in Friday’s contest. The 1996-born forward has a goal and four points in his last two games. Earlier in the year, he had a seven-game point streak with five goals and 10 points.
Their opponents in the Grizzlys find themselves seventh in the South Division, three points behind sixth, an nine points clear of eighth, knowing however that it could all change quickly at any moment.
Ryley Smith, not to be confused with teammate Riley Smith, has four goals and seven points in his last four games. The game prior to that saw Smith’s 11-game point streak end. Though the Huxley, Alta. forward has an impressive 17 goals and 40 points in 59 career AJHL games, he has just one assist against the Canucks, recorded Sept. 15 2015, in six games.
After hosting the Canucks, the Grizzlys will head out on the road themselves Saturday, travelling to face the Canmore Eagles (10-6-3). The first meeting of the season saw the Eagles win by a 6-3 final in Olds Oct. 8, a result they’d no doubt like to repeat at home. Eagles forward Adam Tisdale had a pair of goals in that game and enters the weekend on a three-game point streak.
Their 6-2-2 record over their past 10 games is the sixth-best in the league at the moment and their stock could rise higher this weekend. In addition to hosting the Grizzlys, the Eagles will host the Brooks Bandits (13-3-3) Friday night.
A shootout victory for the Bandits was the result from the opening game of the season series and was filled with offence. Eight players, four from each side, recorded multi-point games in the contest. With two of the top three goals per game averages in the Viterra South Division and both teams set to play their 20th game of the season, this game could provide some offensive fireworks from both sides.
One of those players chipping in offensively is Bandits defenceman Cale Makar, who enters the weekend with eight goals and 22 points in 19 games. The Calgary product is 18 points shy of 100 for his AJHL career, but Makar is closing in one another cool statical achievement. With two more goals, Makar would become just the second Bandits defenceman dating back to at least the 2005-06 season with back-to-back seasons with double digit goals. The other Bandit to accomplish that feat? Airdrie’s Maddison Smiley, who split his 36 career AJHL goals over two seasons with the Bandits between 2012 and 2014.
The Bandits will close out their weekend when they host the Okotoks Oilers (12-5-3) Saturday night at the Centennial Regional Arena. Saturday’s game would give the Oilers a chance to catch the Bandits in the standings, should Brooks fail to pick up a point from either game this weekend.
With 27 points through 20 games, the Oilers are on pace to reach the 80-point plateau for the seventh time since their move to Okotoks. Nolan Thompson has already set a new career-high total for goals in a season, scoring his with of the year last weekend, but the veteran is still just three points away from setting a high for points in a season. A continuation of his last five games, where he has three goals and five points should help him accomplish that goal quickly.
Taking a look at the North Division, the Whitecourt Wolverines (17-4-3) are roaring on the strength of a nine-game winning streak and will look to make it 10 in a row when they play their lone game of the weekend Saturday against the Sherwood Park Crusaders (10-10-0). The Wolverines last regular loss came on the road back on Oct. 13, but they’ve been almost unbeatable since then, losing once in overtime, but otherwise going 13-3-1 since the start of October.
If Sherwood Park is going to beat Whitecourt, it may have to come at even strength. The Wolverines hold the league’s second-best road penalty kill, operating at 92.86 per cent and allowing just four power play goals on the road so far this year.
For the Crusaders, they’ll host the Wolverines Saturday followed by a Sunday afternoon date with the Drayton Valley Thunder (3-12-4). They’re 4-4 are the home team, but the Cru have just two wins inside the Sherwood Park Arena this season, a statistic they’ll no doubt be looking to correct this weekend. Rookie Arjun Atwal has three goals and 10 points in his last seven games. Those totals include a two point night in a 4-1 win for the Cru over Drayton Valley Wednesday on the road.
The Thunder will likely be a tired club after taking on the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (16-4-1) the night before at the Casman Centre. The Thunder are 1-8-2 on the road, which actually only makes them the third-worst team on the road this year. With a 1-6-3 record in their last 10 games, things will need to pick up soon if they don’t want to be left behind in seventh place.
In Fort McMurray, the Barons will return to action this weekend following a well-deserved break. They’ll host the Drumheller Dragons (8-8-3) Friday, wearing special jerseys in honour of Remembrance Day, before their game against the Thunder Saturday. This weekend will also give the MOB two chance to reach double-digit wins as the home team after last year’s 5-18-7 record as the home team. Another sign of positive change for the MOB rests in their goals for and against averages. This year’s goals against average of 2.19 goals per game is slightly lower than their goals for per game average of 2.28 from last year. The week off has dropped them into second in the Viterra AJHL North, but there is the looming matter of the three games the MOB have in hand on the Wolverines heading into the weekend.
Drumheller’s tour of northern Alberta will take them to Fort McMurray Friday before games against the Lloydminster Bobcats (2-15-1) Saturday and Bonnyville Pontiacs (15-5-2) Sunday. With a 5-3-2 record against the North Division so far this year, the Dragons have made the most of their games outside the South Division. After this weekend however, 11 out of their 14 games until the end of December will be against the South Division, followed by 22 out of their final 24 games. While that’s to be expected, the Dragons will need a better record than their current 3-5-1 record to remain competitive against their southern Alberta foes.
Also touring the North Division this weekend are the Calgary Mustangs (3-17-1), who will face Lloydminster Friday and Bonnyville Saturday. The Mustangs are 0-11-1 on the road this year, the last AJHL team to be without a victory on the road this year. A goals for average of 2.62 isn’t the greatest, but it’s not the worst in the league and against the league-worst Bobcats may be the time for the Mustangs to strike.
In Lloydminster, the Bobcats ended October with four one-goal games, going 2-1-1 over that span. A three-game losing streak to start November has wiped out any of that momentum however, with the Bobcats remaining dead last in the North Division and league with five points on the year. Kobe Walker has a goal and four points in his last three games to retain the team scoring lead with 11 points.
Another pair of home games for the Pontiacs will bring about a chance at four more points for the third place team in the North Division. The Pontiacs have a quartet of players with 10 or more goals this year, the only AJHL team with that many scorers in double digits. Sherwood Park and Canmore each have three. As important as their home play has been, their record on the road, 4-1 in their last five, has also aided the team’s chances.
The Grande Prairie Storm will attempt to replicate their recent play at home into road contests this weekend when they travel to face the Spruce Grove Saints (15-5-2) Friday before a date at the Encana Arena with the Camrose Kodiaks (11-9-1) Saturday.
With his two-point effort Nov. 6 against Bonnyville, Michael Clarke set a career-high for points in a season with 20. With six multi-point games this year so far, Clarke will attempt to hope to help the Storm stay strong on the road. Their one win at home and 1-6-2 record overall isn’t that promising, but with the team sandwiched between the Thunder and Cru for sixth place in the North Division, that might be all the motivation they need to improve their standing.
For the Saints, game 23 of the year will see them try to build on their 5-3-2 home record. The last season the Saints lost more than three home games in regulation was the 2012-13 season, when they still went 19-7-4 as the home team that year. Brett Smythe is 20 games away from reaching 200 for his AJHL career and three goals away from 50 for his AJHL career.
In Camrose, the Kodiaks are mired in fifth place at the moment, unfamiliar territory for the club, but there is still plenty of jockeying to be done in the team’s final 39 games of the year. After a big trade last week, Bryson Traptow has three goals and four points in his first three games with the Kodiaks. His 14 goals and 27 points through 20 games have him on pace to surpass his career-high total of 59 points set last year.