Photo Credit: Pro Sports Photography:
It could be just as busy a weekend off the ice as it is on the ice in the AJHL, as Saturday marks the December 1st deadline for teams to cut down to 25 players on their roster.
While there’s certainly been some competitive hockey towards the halfway point of the AJHL campaign, nothing personifies this more right now than the South Division. While the Brooks Bandits (24-3-0) have a healthy 14 point lead over the Drumheller Dragons (17-10-0), four teams are all within two wins of catching the Dragons.
One of those teams in that logjam is the Calgary Mustangs (13-9-5) who are coming off a game on Tuesday which saw them do something only the Dragons and Spruce Grove Saints (19-8-1) have done all year – beat Brooks. It was a solid hockey game which saw a Bandits comeback fall just short, but Brooks gets another crack at the Mustangs on Friday for the second of three games between the two teams in seven days.
Meanwhile, the Dragons will look to pad their sole possession of 2nd place in the South with a three-game road trip beginning up North against the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (13-9-5). Both teams have five wins in their last 10 games and the MOB have won two of their last three games. The Dragons have also won two of their last three and will look to avenge a November 2nd loss that saw the Oil Barons trip up Drumheller in their own barn 2-1. Earlier this week, the Oil Barons traded one of their two goal scorers from that night – Jack Hamly – to the Sherwood Park Crusaders (19-6-2) in exchange for former Dragon Tyson Scott.
Those very same Crusaders are also on the road to start their weekend, as they play the Whitecourt Wolverines (14-14-1) at the Scott Safety Centre. This is only the second meeting of the year between the division rivals and the first since November 2nd, a game which the Crusaders skated to a hefty 5-1 decision. Coming into the rematch, the Crusaders are on a slight two-game slide after back-to-back losses to division leaders in the Bonnyville Pontiacs (22-5-2) and the Brooks Bandits while the Wolverines have found their stride, winning three straight and collecting points in five of their last six.
The Crusaders’ cross-region rival, the Spruce Grove Saints (19-8-1) will be at home to start the weekend and entertaining the Drayton Valley Thunder (11-16-1). The Thunder come into the Grove looking to close out a strong November that has them at 7-3, including a pair of victories over the division-leading Bonnyville Pontiacs. On the other side of centre, Spruce Grove will look for their third straight win. On Wednesday, the Saints were able to edge the Wolverines at the Grant Fuhr Arena 2-1.
The final game on Friday night sees the Calgary Canucks (4-23-1) start out a northern road trip against the Bonnyville Pontiacs. The ‘Yaks are rolling right along, having picked up points in nine straight games and victories in four straight. The Canucks are still searching for an identity after a rough start to the season prompted a coaching change. Under new Coach Brad Moran, the Canucks will look to battle the Olds Grizzlys. Moran picked up his first head coaching win on Saturday last week, when the Canucks upended those same Grizzlys in overtime 5-4. The Canucks have also made a number of significant trades, as defenceman Max Struss (Fort McMurray) and captain Cooper Johnson (Camrose) are now on new squads while they’ve added forward Jackson Verstraete and defenders Sean McCloskey and Korbyn Chabot.
AJHL South teams getting their first taste of action this weekend on Saturday will collide in Olds and Camrose, as the Grizzlys (3-24-2) host the Canmore Eagles (14-10-3) while the Okotoks Oilers (15-12-1) visit the Kodiaks (15-10-3). The Grizzlys are trying to snap a nasty stretch, having earned just one point in their last six games, but have been competitive in each contest. Of the seven losses, three have been by just a single goal while another was a two-goal deficit. The Eagles have been on both sides of lopsided results over the course of November and will look to get back in the win column after a 7-4 loss to the Wolverines followed back-to-back shutout wins.
In Camrose, the Kodiaks and Oilers will both look to stay in the mix when it comes to that South Division traffic jam. The Oilers have been on a win one, lose one streak in five games since November 16th (going 3-2) while the Kodiaks will look to newly acquired Cooper Johnson to continuing easing into their lineup. The Kodiaks have picked up points in all but two November games.
In the North, the Grande Prairie Storm (14-14-2) will take on the Sherwood Park Crusaders in their lone game of the weekend. The Crusaders are making their second trip to Grande Prairie this season and have gone 2-0 against the Storm this season, outscoring them 11-2. Those two games were played back-to-back to close out October. The Storm are looking to work out of a minor funk as they have just one win in their last five.
The Lloydminster Bobcats (6-20-1) are another team to have made a coaching change this season, and are hoping for continued resurgent play as they trail the Thunder for the North’s final playoff spot with a game in hand. The Border City ‘Cats will face the Canucks in their first of two games against South Division opponents over the weekend. The two teams have yet to meet this season.
The Canucks’ opponent from the previous night, Bonnyville, will continue their weekend homestand against the Drumheller Dragons. This is also a first time matchup this season, and both teams should be considered contenders heading into the second half.
Two all-North matchups will bring Saturday to a close, as the Spruce Grove Saints take on the Oil Barons in Fort McMurray (the Saints have taken two of three this season) and the Drayton Valley Thunder head up to Whitecourt to try and solve the Wolverines for the first time in three tries this year.
A trio of games will close out the weekend on Sunday, beginning with two early afternoon matchups seeing the Calgary Mustangs visit the Canmore Eagles and the Lloydminster Bobcats battle the Drumheller Dragons. The Mustangs and Eagles have already played each other three times and have combined for a spicy 27 goals, good for nine goals a game. The Mustangs have the series edge 2-1. The Dragons and Bobcats will meet for the second time this year, with the first meeting being a 7-4 Drumheller win back on November 3rd that saw the Bobcats outscored 7-2 after building a 2-0 1st period lead.
The final game of the weekend is later in the afternoon, with the Okotoks Oilers greeting the Olds Grizzlys at Pason Centennial Arena. Okotoks has taken both meetings between the two so far this season, but the teams haven’t played each other since October 13th.