AJHL Weekend Preview: November 6-8, 2015

Whereas Brett Kissel is known for starting with a song, this weekend’s action in the Alberta Junior Hockey league will begin with a rare Friday afternoon hockey game at the Encana Arena as the Camrose Kodiaks (12-3-3) and Brooks Bandits (12-3-2) meet for the second time this season.

As the opening part of the Harvest Hockey Hooky II, featuring a concert after the game by Kissel himself, the Kodiaks and Bandits will have their sights firmly focused on first place in the Viterra AJHL South Division, which the Kodiaks presently hold by a one-point margin over the Bandits.

In the team’s first meeting of the season last weekend, the Bandits had to edge the Kodiaks in a shootout in order to secure two points and another close battle between the division’s top two teams is expected again.

Josh Davies has only continued to impress this season after his stellar 2014-15 campaign, starting all but one of his team’s games — going 11-3-2 in the process. His last regulation loss was Oct. 1.

The Bandits will finish off their weekend road swing with a Sunday afternoon matchup against the Calgary Canucks (7-14-1). Entering the third game of the year between the two teams, the Bandits have the odds in their favour, holding the Canucks to two goals in each of the first two games this season between the two teams.

In possession of the last playoff spot in the Viterra AJHL South, the Canucks have received a nice contribution from forward Zach McNeill. An offseason acquisition, McNeill has six multi-point games through 22 games, also sitting a goal shy of matching his seven-goal total in 57 games last season.

For the Kodiaks, the deeper they go into the season, the more they’re proving last year’s 100-point effort — their first time in triple digits since the 2007-08 season — wasn’t a fluke.

The recent addition of 1996-born forward Paul Lovsin from the British Columbia Hockey League has paid dividends for the Kodiaks, recording back-to-back three-point games last weekend.

Closing out their weekend against the Calgary Mustangs (4-14-2), Kodiaks forward Cole McBride will be hoping for a repeat of the following weekend, when he notched two goals and five points in games against the Bandits and Mustangs on the road. Of McBride’s 12 goals and 24 points this year, five goals and nine points have been scored at home.

The Mustangs will wrap up a quick tour of central Alberta Saturday at the Encana Arena after facing the Drumheller Dragons (9-10-1) the evening before at the Drumheller Memorial Arena.

Mired in an 11 game winless streak with six straight regulation losses, the Mustangs will be happy to say goodbye to October though it doesn’t get any easier after Drumheller.

After Friday’s game the Mustangs will play a seven game stretch that includes two visits to Camrose, a home game against the Canmore Eagles (11-7-2), two matches against the Bandits as well as contests against the Okotoks Oilers (10-8-1) and Bonnyville Pontiacs (13-7-2). Already five points out of the final playoff spot in the Viterra AJHL South, the next month will be telling for the club as far as their playoff hopes go.

The Dragons have gone 4-6 in their last 10 games — including Wednesday’s 2-0 loss to the Lloydminster Bobcats (19-2-0) — seemingly just on the outside of cracking into the top tier of the division. Thankfully for them, they’ll get to play both of their weekend games at home, which includes a Saturday matchup against the Eagles, where they’re 6-3 this season compared to a less desirable 3-7-1 road record.

Their Saturday opponents from Canmore have been one of the surprises of the first third of the AJHL season. Third in the South Division, the Eagles have held the title of the league’s best road powerplay, clicking at a 33.33% success rate while only managing a 16.98% success rate at home. Also of note is the team’s position in the division, which if they maintained would give them home-ice advantage in the playoff for the first time since the 2006-07 season.

While it’d be easy to give the credit to forward Matt Forchuk, who has multi-point efforts in 10 of the 20 games he’s played so far this season, the goaltending duo of Ryan Bontorin and Ryan Gilchrist have handled rotating quite well, serving as the only pair of net minders on the same team in the South Division to each have five victories.

Forward Lane Olsen has also had a big start to his final season of junior hockey, matching his goal total from the 2014-15 campaign on Oct. 30 and putting himself on pace for a 75-point season.

In the North Division, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (2-15-4) will pay a visit to the toast of the Viterra North Division with games against the Spruce Grove Saints (18-4-0) Friday, Bobcats Saturday and a Sunday afternoon matchup with the Pontiacs.

The Saints, took out their frustration of two weekend losses to the Whitecourt Wolverines (13-3-3) on the Drayton Valley Thunder (7-8-4) Wednesday in a 6-1 victory. Friday’s matchup — the last regular season battle between the two clubs at the Grant Fuhr Arena this season – could provide the Saints with another game to vent any offensive frustrations.

An ankle injury to forward Brandon Biro has sidelined one of the Saints’ offensive threats, though by the time Friday’s puck drops, Jason McKee will likely have already shuffled the lines to find another winning recipe.

The recipe hasn’t changed on the goaltending front as both Brett Zarowny and Matthew Murray hold 9-2 records on the season, with Zarowny’s three shutouts giving him a slight edge over the younger Murray for now.

In Lloydminster, the Bobcats are humming along at their normal pace from the start of the season. With 15 regulation wins, they trail the Saints’ 17 wins in regulation. Rookie Noah Bauld — already committed to Cornell University – is proving to be anything but a rookie, scoring seven goals and 17 points in 19 games to sit third on the team’s points list. Goaltender Alex Leclerc has yet to lose a game this season, sitting first in the AJHL for wins (12), goals against average (1.42) and save percentage (.947).

Bandits goaltender Michael Fredrick was the last AJHL goaltender to record 40 or more wins in a single season and Leclerc seems to be headed down that same path this year.

In Bonnyville, the Pontiacs are cooling off after a 9-0-0 run from late September and are 2-2-1 since Oct. 20 with those two wins coming against the lowly Grande Prairie Storm (2-16-2).

Brinson Pasichnuk’s incredible streak of six straight multi-point games (5 goals, 10 assists) came to an end, but in the four games since it’s ending, he’s recorded two more for 10 total on the year.

Given all this, it could be another long road trip for the MOB, who have yet to win a road game this season, one of only two AJHL teams — the other being the Storm — to do so. While they managed to piece together a victory over the Drayton Valley Thunder last Friday, they fell well short of maintaining that momentum the following night in another loss.

Recently acquired defenceman Jordan Steenbergen made an impact in his first weekend with the MOB, scoring a goal and adding an assist in his first game before adding a second assist in Saturday’s game. His veteran presence and experience has already paid dividends for the MOB.

Before the Bobcats host the MOB Saturday, they’ll host the Sherwood Park Crusaders (13-6-1) Friday night in the Cru’s only game of the weekend. Friday’s game will be the last regular season meeting at the Centennial Civic Centre Arena between the two clubs and while battling to stay near the top of the division, the Cru would like to take a point or two from the game.

In the two previous contests, the Bobcats came out on the winning end of 5-1 and 3-1 results. On an 8-1-1 streak in their last 10 games and with Tyler Maltby heating up — four goals, seven points in his last four games — now is a prime chance for the Cru to strike.

The Pontiacs will also play host to the Wolverines Saturday in the lone weekend game for Whitecourt. The Wolverines are one of only two teams in the league to have one regulation loss on the road. Forward Erik Pedersen has also been an assist machine for the Wolverines, recording 11 in his last eight games and 16 on the season.

In a battle of two of the bottom three teams in the AJHL Viterra North Division, the Thunder and Storm will meet at Revolution Arena Friday and Saturday. Two of the three contests in the season series for the two clubs have been decided by a single goal.

The Thunder find themselves in the metaphorical first floor of the division, sitting nine points behind the fifth-place Crusaders, but 10 points ahead of the seventh-place Oil Barons.

Thunder forward Brayden Harris has an active six-game point streak going (four goals, five assists). If the Storm are going to get going and put some more wins on the board to close that gap with the Cru, they’ll need better production from players like forward Ian McLellan, who has one point in his last four games.

Closing out the weekend will be a home-and-home between the Okotoks Oilers (10-8-1) and Olds Grizzlys (7-9-2). Oilers defenceman Carson Beers is starting to find some consistency to his season, tallying three points in his last four games.

On the flip side for the Grizzlys, defenceman Tristan Thompson has just two points in his last five contests after recording five points in a run of four games. Incoming forward Logan Franz struggled to start the year, with just six points in 16 games, but a change of scenery could do him and his new team some favours.

The Oilers had the fourth best home (22-3-5) and away (16-13-1) records last year, though their success on the road this season hasn’t come as quickly, with them sporting a 3-6-1 record. On the road is where the Grizzlys might want to be, with a 5-3-1 record through nine road games this year, while their home play is 2-6-1.