Photo and Story by Robert Murray @novacanuck
As the 2016-17 Alberta Junior Hockey League season approaches the end of November and the arbitrary halfway point of the season, some top divisional matches will feature in the Viterra AJHL North and South Divisions this weekend.
Of all the games to focus on Friday, the top one will take place at the Scott Safety Centre as the Bonnyville Pontiacs (19-6-3) travel to face the Whitecourt Wolverines (19-6-3), where the winner will emerge with a temporary lead in the hotly-contested division.
The third meeting of the month between the two teams, the Wolverines have claimed the victory in both contests — one home, one away — though they’ve had to accomplish victory by a late third period goal and through the shootout. The two teams won’t meet again until January 2017 after Friday’s game, where the clubs will meet for three more regular season matches.
November has been kind to the Wolverines, who have gone 7-2, including just their first regulation loss at the Scott Safety Centre, an impressive feat for any of the league’s teams. Forward Mitch Lipon has found his offensive groove with the Wolverines, with eight multi-point efforts in 26 games this season. More good news for attending fans in Whitecourt, 15 of those points have come at in the team’s 16 home games.
For the Pontiacs, a chance to improve on their 7-2 road record will be welcomed as they head onto the road for their game Friday followed by a Saturday date against the Sherwood Park Crusaders (13-11-1). With the World Junior A Challenge coming to Bonnyville in December, the Pontiacs recently completed a home-heavy portion of their schedule, going 4-1-2 in seven straight home games.
Of their league-leading 126 goals for, 41 have come on the road, a shade higher than their goals for average of 4.50, proving for the time being that there’s no imbalance between the offensive capabilities at home or away. Recent NCAA Div. I commit to Arizona State University Derek Brown has five goals and 13 points in 11 games this month.
For the Crusaders, their weekend will consist of welcoming teams to the Sherwood Park Arena, hosting the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (19-5-1) Friday before Saturday’s date against the Pontiacs. While the MOB have won the last two meetings against the Cru in Sherwood Park, the Pontiacs will make their first trip of the year to Sherwood Park Arena, the same place their season ended in last year’s AJHL Gas Drive Cup North Division quarterfinal.
Before a 3-1 loss Wednesday, the Crusaders had averaged 6.2 goals for per games and 4.4 goals against per game inside Sherwood Park Arena in their last five contests. Tyler Maltby had an impressive 11-game point streak ended Wednesday. In those 11 games, Maltby had nine goals and 22 points.
This weekend will mark another crucial stretch of play to end the 2016 calendar year for the Oil Barons. Nine of their next 12 games are on the road, meaning they’ll double their amount of road games played in the first two months of the season in the next month. They have just one road regulation loss in all of October and November, another sign of the turnaround success for the club.
With wins in Sherwood Park and against the Lloydminster Bobcats (5-18-1) the Barons could put themselves at nine road wins by the end of November. That would equal the amount of road wins by the Barons at the end of November 2013, the last time the team made a significant playoff run, going all the way to the North Division final.
In Lloydminster, the Bobcats went through their fair share of early season struggles, but have appeared to kick those early results to the side for the time being. A 3-6 record in November may not seem that ideal, but small goals for the team at this time is important. Those wins have also kept them in the race for the last playoff spot in the North Division. All their energy should be focused into Saturday’s home contest against the MOB, their lone match of the weekend.
Hometown product Kobe Walker continues to be a driving force for the Bobcats in his rookie season. He started November with a six-game point streak before being shutdown in one game, but has since returned to the scoresheet in his past two contests. Along with fellow 1998-born players like Zach Kaiser, Brady Barclay and Zach Webb, the club has a young core to build around for the next few years.
In the South Division, a prominent matchup of the weekend will feature the division-leading Brooks Bandits (17-3-3) hosting the Okotoks Oilers (14-7-3) at the Centennial Regional Arena Saturday after welcoming the Canmore Eagles (13-9-3) to town for the start of a four-game home stand.
Home play is once again a source of strength for the Bandits, though their only regulation loss in Brooks this year came to the Oilers on the opening night of the regular season. The season series between the Bandits and Oilers has been a low-scoring affair. The two teams have combined to produce just 15 goals through four games, an average of 3.75 goals per game compared to the 5.5 goals per game scored in last year’s season series.
The Eagles will head into the weekend in a familiar spot, situated fifth in the Viterra AJHL South Division. Since missing the playoffs in the 2011-12 season, the Eagles haven’t finished worse than sixth or better than fourth. Their 5-4-1 record in their last 10 games is about as close to average as you can get without going exactly 5-5. Their weekend road games in Brooks Friday and against the Drumheller Dragons (10-10-4) Saturday will provide another test of the club’s character.
On the lower-end of the mid-tier teams in the South Division, the Eagles could find themselves as high as third by the end of the weekend or battling just keep control of fifth place by the end of the weekend in a tight divisional race.
For the Dragons, their lone contest of the weekend will come Saturday when they host Canmore in an attempt to get closer to the middle tier of teams. A pair of trades with teams in the North Division have helped the Dragons, but it was one on the third day of the regular season that’s worth focusing in on this week.
Chad Hurtubise, whose previous career-high was set last season with 12 goals and 29 points in 58 games has almost surpassed that total in the first half of the year. His eight goals and 24 points through 23 games have him on pace to finish with roughly 20 goals and 61 points this year at his current pace. On a four-game point streak with three goals and six points, the forward is providing an offensive punch for the Dragons this year.
For the other team at the top of the South Division, the Calgary Canucks (18-8-1), who were the first South Division club to reach 10 home wins on the year, will get two chances to strengthen that record this weekend. They’ll host the Spruce Grove Saints (18-7-2) and Drayton Valley Thunder (6-15-4) at the Max Bell Centre Friday and Saturday respectively.
After going 6-11-1 against the North Division last year, the Canucks have already equalled that win total against the opponents up north through just 27 games. Having played four more games than the Bandits, the pressure is on the Canucks to keep close in the standings while the Bandits make up the difference of those extra games.
The Oilers will play host to the Thunder Friday before the aforementioned Saturday contest in Calgary. Playing on the road hasn’t bothered the Oilers in the month of November, with the club going 3-2-1 to maintain their fifth place position in the South Division. Of the Oilers’ 24 games, 13 have been decided by a single goal, with Okotoks holding a 9-1-3 record in those games, just recently losing their first one-goal game in regulation to the Wolverines. That record includes a strong 5-1-3 record in one-goal games on the road, a place they’ll need to win in order to advance in the standings.
A model for developing players from within, five of the team’s top six scoring forwards have spent their entire AJHL careers with the Oilers, while four of the team’s top eight offensive contributors have played at least 120 games each with the club.
Still with two-and-a-half years of junior hockey eligibility, Nolan Thompson is already a blooming star for the Oilers. He’s already set a career-high in goals every season he’s played, notching 11 goals already in this campaign. His next point will also set a career-high for points in a single season, topping his 20 from last year. Furthermore, 16 of his 21 career AJHL goals have come at even strength.
The Thunder will head to the southern part of the province with two big games against the Oilers and Canucks. After beating the MOB last weekend, the club has shown they can play better than their record at times. Rookie goaltender Parker Tobin picked up his first career AJHL win last weekend and could provide more solid performances as the season progresses. The reality of the situation for the Thunder is that even just 25 games into their season, they’re already 25 points behind the Pontiacs and Wolverines for the division lead. Having rattled off three wins in their last four games might be motivation enough to tackle two ominous opponents from the South Division. Forward Michael Doneff has three goals and six points in his last five games.
For the Saints, their excursion the the South Division will pit them against the Canucks Friday before a date with the Calgary Mustangs (3-21-1) Saturday. The last win for each Calgary team against the Saints is more recent than you might think. The Mustangs last beat the Saints at the AJHL Showcase Sept. 27, 2012 while the Canucks got their most recent win a month later in a 3-2 shootout victory. The Saints do have more recent history on their side though, winning 14 straight games against the two clubs combined.
With teams in the Viterra AJHL North finally pushing back against the Saints to clamour for the top spot in the division, the Saints have had to play their best hockey while relying on unlikely heroes. Rookie goaltender Nolan Kent has fulfilled one of those hero spots, stepping into the starting role and keeping his cool to the tune of a 13-5-1 record. Kent dazzled with a 24-save shutout in his opening game against the Crusaders.
As the home team in Saturday’s contest, the Mustangs will continue to seek a return to the win column in their lone game this weekend against the Saints. The high of their 3-2 win over the Brooks Bandits quickly eroded with nine straight losses and just one single point through seven games in the month of November. Playing six of their nine December games at home could help, considering they’ve only won at home this year.
After the Camrose Kodiaks (15-9-2) won a 4-3 overtime game over the Olds Grizzlys (9-13-3) at home Thursday, the Grizzlys will get a chance to return the favour at the Olds Sportsplex Friday in the only game of the weekend for both teams.
The Kodiaks have won seven straight regular season and playoff meetings against the Grizzlys dating back to Jan. 22, 2016. Looking at games between the two at the Olds Sportsplex specifically, the last victory for the Grizzlys against the Kodiaks at home came on Jan. 13, 2015, a span of six straight games.
The lone Sunday game in the league will see the Grande Prairie Storm (6-17-4) wrap up a weekend home set against the Wolverines in the battle of northwestern Alberta. Like the Mustangs, the Storm only have one point to show for their play in November, having also lost every game this month.
At this point, the last place Bobcats can catch the Storm with the three games they have in hand on them in the standings. December is a relatively light travel month for the club, with their longest road trip to Spruce Grove.