AJHL Weekend Preview: November 17th-19th

Starting tonight, the Spruce Grove Saints (16-5-1) begin a crucial weekend as they face the only two teams ahead of them in the AJHL North Standings – the Fort McMurray Oil Barons and the Whitecourt Wolverines. 

In the Grant Fuhr Arena tonight, the Saints will meet the Oil Barons (18-3-1) for the 4th time this season and if it’s anything like most of the meetings between these two clubs it’s going to be an absolute treat.  The Saints have taken 2 of the first 3 meetings of the year, with the last one a 3-2 Saints win decided by a Logan Ganie goal with just 1.7 seconds remaining in the 3rd period.  The loss was Fort McMurray’s only defeat in their last seven games as they continue to pace the North Division approaching December.  The Saints then have a quick turnaround on Friday when they go on the road to face the Whitecourt Wolverines (17-4-3) who are currently the hottest team in the league, riding an 11-game win streak.  Coincidentally, the last team to down the Wolverines were the Saints- a 2-0 win back on October 13th- but the Wolverines win streak does include a 3-1 victory over Spruce Grove.  While the Saints weekend ends after they take on the Wolverines, both Whitecourt and Fort McMurray have plenty of work left.

For the Oil Barons, they’ll continue a three-in-three road trip on Friday in Lloydminster against the upstart Bobcats (6-16-1).  Albeit feisty, the Bobcats will have to look to begin burying some chances as their 16th ranked offence will run up against one of the stingiest team defences in the AJHL.  From Lloydminster, the MOB make a pit stop on their way back to the ‘Mac, facing the Bonnyville Pontiacs (9-9-4) on Saturday.  The Oil Barons and Pontiacs will be playing for just the 2nd time this season, with the only other game between the two this year being won by the Oil Barons in a shootout.  As for the red-hot Wolverines, they could possibly be looking for their 13th win in a row on Saturday at home against Camrose Kodiaks (6-11-5) of the AJHL South.  The Kodiaks were recently on a streak of their own, though not an enviable one as they snapped an 11-game skid with back to back wins.  Heading into the weekend, the Kodiaks are tied with the Olds Grizzlys (8-15-1) for the last playoff spot in the AJHL South.

Shifting to the AJHL South, this weekend’s schedule includes a pair of double header rivalry matchups as the Calgary Mustangs (11-12-1) square off against the Drumheller Dragons (13-10-1) while the Brooks Bandits (15-7-1) have an extended two-game stay in Canmore against the Eagles (9-12-1).  In the case of the Mustangs, they were toppled off a six-game winstreak in Spruce Grove last weekend and have lost three in a row while the Dragons are also looking to get back on track after a stretch of 3-7-0.  The two games, Friday in Drumheller and Saturday back in Calgary, are the first of the year between the two and with a weekend sweep in regulation Mustangs can tie the Dragons in the standings with 27 points.

At the foot of the Rocky Mountains, the Bandits are hoping to gain some ground on the South-leading Okotoks Oilers (18-2-1) in their games against the Canmore Eagles.  Both teams are looking to get back in the win column as the Bandits have dropped their last two while the Eagles are still winless through five November games, being outscored 27-14 over that run.  The Eagles will hope their home ice can be used to their advantage, as their losing streak has all come on the road and will play games at the Canmore Recreation Centre for the first time since October 28th. 

Rounding out AJHL South action is a matchup rotation involving the Calgary Canucks (10-12-1), the Olds Grizzlys and the Okotoks Oilers.  On Friday, the Oilers and Grizzlys well meet in Okotoks and despite being the respective top and bottom teams in their division there is intrigue to be had.  Not only are the Grizzlys one of the four teams within four points of each other in the bottom half of the division, they have hauled themselves back into this position by rattling off three wins in a row- including a 3-2 shootout win over the Oilers on Remembrance Day last weekend.  The Oilers in turn have an opportunity to win their 3rd game in a row and give the Grizzlys some comeuppance after leading Olds 2-0 at one point and outshooting them 28-16 in the Remembrance Day loss.  Forward Josh Borynec had two points in that Grizzlys win, his debut with the team after being acquired from Drayton Valley.  The Oilers then have Saturday off, while the Grizzlys stay on the road with a game in Calgary versus the Canucks.  It’s the Canucks’ first game since a rough swing through Fort McMurray and Spruce Grove last weekend as they have now lost three in a row.  Fortunately for the Canucks, they have had a lot of success against the Grizzlys already this season, taking three of four meetings.  To close out the weekend, the Oilers and Canucks will play a neutral site matinee in Strathmore on Sunday afternoon. 

Back in the north, the Drayton Valley Thunder (5-19-0) are getting their first taste of sustained success this season and it’s coming almost immediately after the team announced the hiring of new head coach Ryan Rechner, who stepped down from his associate coach position in Spruce Grove to take the job.  Since the announcement on November 8th, the Thunder are 2-1 and have scored five power play goals on twelve opportunities.  This is no small feat, as the those five power play goals nearly doubled the Thunder’s power play output of the entire season up to that point.    The Thunder are on the road all weekend, visiting reigning AJHL Player of the Week PJ Marocco and Pontiacs in Bonnyville on Friday before a showdown at the Centennial Civic Centre Arena on Saturday night against the Lloydminster Bobcats; the team directly ahead of them in the AJHL North. 

Also on Sunday, the Sherwood Park Crusaders (9-13-2) will have a chance to get even against the Grande Prairie Storm (13-6-3) after an overtime 5-4 loss in Grande Prairie which was decided by a Connor Blake penalty shot in overtime.  Puck drop at the Sherwood Park Arena is set for 2:15 PM.

-Tom Strangward @TheOneNDTom