On the eve of the final weekend of the third month of the 2015-16 Alberta Junior Hockey League season, the familiar teams are leading the pack while the playoff races are tightening heading towards the second half of the season.
With Wednesday’s World Junior A Challenge camp invite announcements, Friday evening’s game between the Bonnyville Pontiacs (18-8-5) and Brooks Bandits (18-5-2) at the Centennial Regional Arena will feature three of the defencemen invited to Team Canada West’s camp in Pontiacs defender Brinson Pasichnuk and Bandits blue liners Cale Makar and Shane Bear.
Their defensive skills will definitely be on display, but the meeting of the offensive minds — and three NCAA Division I committed players — could be an early preview for what Canada West’s defence corps looks like come tournament time.
Pasichnuk has three goals and six points in his past six games. Makar has one goal and 11 points in his last nine contests while Bear recently recorded his 15th career goal and 80th career AJHL point Nov. 17.
The Pontiacs took care of the Bandits in the last matchup Sept. 26 in Bonnyville, winning by a 7-1 final. The Bandits last won against the Pontiacs Oct. 22, 2014, while the Pontiacs have taken points from the last four contests dating back to Feb. 1, 2014.
Wrapping up their four-game tour of southern Alberta Saturday, the Pontiacs will play the Drumheller Dragons (10-16-1) Saturday evening. As with the Bandits, the Pontiacs pummelled the Dragons when the teams met earlier this season at the RJ Lalonde Arena by a 7-2 final Oct. 10.
The Dragons haven’t done themselves any favours in the past 10 games, going 1-8-1 to slide down the Viterra South Division standings, sitting sixth entering the weekend.
Though they haven’t won since Nov. 6, the Dragons could be looking forward to Monday’s matchup against the Calgary Mustangs (4-22-2) as a chance to get back in the win column since their lone victory for the month of November came against the Mustangs in a 3-0 win. Leading scorer Ty Mappin has four points in his last five games.
For the Bandits, they’ll head out on the road to conclude their weekend play Saturday against the Olds Grizzlys (10-13-2). The Grizzlys will play host to the Bandits for the second time this month after Brooks put up 10 goals on their hosts Nov. 13.
As the league leaders on the powerplay last year, the Grizzlys have yet to find that same success this season, scoring just 21 goals on the man advantage, sitting 12th in the league with a 17.95% success rate. At home, that rate increases slightly to 19.05%, good enough for 10th in the league. Over their last five home games, the Grizzlys’ powerplay has operated at a 30.43% success rate (7-for-23).
Also paying a visit to the Olds Sportsplex this weekend will be the Grande Prairie Storm (5-21-2), who kicked off their South Division road trip with a 7-3 win in Calgary against the Canucks Wednesday and will roll into Olds Sunday afternoon after facing the Okotoks Oilers (14-10-2) the night before.
Wins have been hard to come by for the Storm, who were 0-12-0 on the road before Wednesday’s victory. As the last team in the league to record a road victory this year, the Storm haven’t had the year they were hoping for, but after momentarily stepping into the last playoff position in the Viterra North Division, they’ll be taking comfort in the small victories whenever they come their way.
The Oilers recently used a three-goal third period to down the Storm by a 5-2 final at Revolution Arena and will look to earn another two points against the Storm at home. Making matters a little more difficult for the Storm is their length between victories against the Oilers, last winning against them Dec. 21, 2012 in Okotoks.
Some Storm players are starting to hit their stride though. Forwards Ian McLellan and Tristan Crozier have six points each in their last five games. Luke Mahura has nine goals and 16 points in his last 10 games.
For the Oilers, they’ve been one of the strongest teams at home in the league, going 9-2-1 and will have a chance to add to that total in their lone weekend contest. Going 4-2-1 in the month of November has temporarily erased memories of their six-game losing streak to end October.
In the Border City, the Lloydminster Bobcats (21-5-0) and Fort McMurray Oil Barons (3-19-5) will meet for a pair of weekend games at the Centennial Civic Centre Arena. The MOB may just have a single win on the road, but surprisingly, it came against the Bobcats earlier this month, a beacon of light for the club in their first season of a rebuild.
Just as the Barons have beat the Bobcats and earned strong results against several top-tier teams in both divisions, they’ve also looked lost in games against the Canmore Eagles (15-10-2) and most recently in the second period of last Saturday’s game against the Whitecourt Wolverines (19-5-3), where a 3-2 lead after 20 minutes turned into a 7-3 game after 40 minutes.
Forward Cole Todd has been scoring in bunches since being traded to the MOB from the Prince George Spruce Kings, recording four multi-point games in his first 14 games with the club.
Even though they’ve cooled off in recent weeks, the Bobcats are still 7-3 in their last 10 games, keeping them second in the Viterra North Division to the Spruce Grove Saints (25-4-0). The Bobcats’ goals for per game of 3.65 ranks them eighth in the league, while their defence remains second in the league, allowing just 2.12 goals per game.
Through 15 games at home this season, the Bobcats have allowed just 24 goals — 16 of them at even strength. They’ve also shutout their opponents three times on home ice and held them to a single goal six other times.
The remaining four teams in the Viterra North Division will play a round of musical chairs against each other over the weekend. Friday, the Saints head onto the road to battle the Drayton Valley Thunder (12-11-4) while the Sherwood Park Crusaders (20-6-2) travel to face the Whitecourt Wolverines (19-5-3). Saturday, the Thunder host the Wolverines and the Cru host the Saints.
Scoring at a rate of 4.55 goals per game, the Saints have increased their lead in the Viterra North Division to eight points. They’re a combined 3-0 against the Thunder and Cru this year, outscoring them 17-4 in those three games. Though they’ve gone an impressive 8-0 in November, the Saints have had some wonky results, shutting out Okotoks and Camrose while giving up five goals to the Oil Barons and four goals to the Grizzlys.
In Drayton Valley, goaltender Jake Morrissey has had a hot introduction to the AJHL, posting a 4-1 record in his first five games and held a steady .908 save % before Tuesday’s 7-1 loss to the Saints.
For the Crusaders, they’ll get their fourth look of the season at the Wolverines Friday, having suffered two losses already at their hands. Forward Ryan Kruper is two points shy of 100 for his AJHL career and has four goals and 13 points in his last nine games. The Cru’s Zac(h) Attack in net has also provided wonders, as they’ve combined to post an 8-0-2 record in the month of November, setting up what could be a battle of the two undefeated in regulation teams in November when the Saints and Cru meet Saturday.
Last, but not least, the Wolverines are chugging along at a fine pace and appear to be destined for their best regular season result in their franchise’s existence. The Wolverines have just five regulation losses this season, with three of them decided by a single goal and have only been shutout once. Forward Erik Pedersen has three goals and 10 points in his last five games and now has 11 multi-point games this season.
Returning to the South Division, the Camrose Kodiaks (17-5-3) will host the Calgary Canucks (7-21-1) in the lone weekend game for both clubs. The Kodiaks offence has shown no mercy on the Canucks, scoring an average of 7.33 goals per game against them this year. Five different Kodiaks players (Nelson Gadoury, Mackenzie Bauer, Cam Gotaas, Liam Motley and Tanner Younghans) have at least five points in the season series against the Canucks.
For the Canucks, recently-acquired forward Ben Assad has breathed some life into the Canucks, recording three goals and five points in his first three games. That hasn’t exactly helped the Canucks, who are 0-8 in November and 1-9 in their last 10, but it’s a start. The Canucks are a surprising 3-3-1 in one-goal games this year.
Closing out the weekend will be a Saturday evening date between the Canmore Eagles and Mustangs. A recent three-game losing streak at home has kept the Eagles from joining the upper-echelon of the South Division, though with a seven-point difference between them and the division-leading Bandits the Eagles aren’t too far out to stop dreaming of challenging for first place.
Though the trio of Matt Forchuk, Logan Ferguson and Lane Olson have garnered the majority of the attention for the Eagles’ surge to the top of the standings, winger Coy Prevost is making some serious noise as a rookie, posting 11 goals and 26 points in 27 games. Before the three-game slide, Prevost had four goals and eight points in four games.
The Mustangs will try to contain the Eagles offence and add to their misery over recent games. That will be easier said than done though as the Mustangs are 0-10-0 in their last ten games and five points back of the final playoff spot in the South Division halfway through the year.