With 15 games on the Alberta Junior Hockey League schedule for this weekend, both the Viterra North and South Divisions will see plenty of teams clamouring for points as the teams at the top of each division look to pull away from the pack while other teams fight to keep ground in the early portion of the season.
Riding an 8-1-1 streak over their past 10 games, the South Division-leading Okotoks Oilers (9-2-1) have shown no signs of a drop off from last season and will look to push their 6-0 home record higher when they host the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (1-9-3) Thursday before making the trip to the Encana Arena Friday to battle the Camrose Kodiaks (7-2-2).
The Oilers have been tough to beat inside the Pason Centennial Arena, allowing nine goals over their first five games of the season inside their home rink, including a 1-0 shutout of the Kodiaks last weekend. Uncommitted 1996-born forward Trey Degraaf has quickly become a player for scouts to watch, scoring five goals and 16 points in his first 12 games, putting him on pace to more than double his point total from last season.
For the MOB, their third road trip of the season will see them head to Okotoks Thursday, battling the Drumheller Dragons (5-6-1) Friday and finish off the weekend against the Olds Grizzlys (3-7-1) Saturday.
After gaining their first victory of the year against the Dragons last Friday, the MOB will be hoping that it’s a sign more wins are on the horizon. Despite their record, the MOB have shown glimpses of strong play, suffering one-goal defeats to Spruce Grove Saints (12-2-0) and Brooks Bandits (7-3-0) this year. With a goals for average that ranks last in the league at 2.31 goals per game, it’s one stat that’ll need to be improved upon to have more success in the short term.
At the top of the North Division, the Saints have looked more human in the past few games, dropping a 5-2 decision in Bonnyville and going 2-2 in their last four games. In an attempt to create some more space at the top of the division, they’ll host the Grande Prairie Storm (2-8-2) Friday and the Brooks Bandits (7-3-0) at Grant Fuhr Arena Saturday.
The Saints beat up the Storm by a two-game combined score of 10-3 last weekend at Revolution Arena and will be more than happy to face them at home, where they’re 3-1 this season, allowing nine goals in those four games, with two of those ending in shutout victories. Saints forward Brandon Biro also has seven multi-point games in 14 games this year, so it’d be fair to say he’s doing pretty well.
For the Bandits, their weekend will start Friday against the Drayton Valley Thunder (3-5-4) before continuing on to Spruce Grove Saturday. Boasting a 4.50 goals for per game average that’s tops in the South Division entering the weekend, that hasn’t translated to their games against the North Division, where they’re 0-2-1 to begin the season and averaging just two goals for per game, while also giving up seven goals each to the Saints and Bonnyville Pontiacs (9-5-1).
The Thunder meanwhile will flip opponents with the Saints, hosting the Storm Saturday after the Bandits Friday. Thunder goaltender Garrett Mason is facing an average of 34.32 shots per 60 minutes, a figure that’s second only to MOB net minder Ravi Dattani (36.04 shots per 60 minutes) in the North Division.
Friday’s game also marks game two of a five-game homestead for the Thunder, where they’re 3-1-2 on the season as opposed to 0-4-2 on the road, one of three teams in the North Division who have yet to win on the road this season.
The Storm are one of those other winless road teams and after contests in Spruce Grove and Drayton Valley, they’ll wrap up their weekend against the Sherwood Park Crusaders (6-6-0) Sunday afternoon. Forward Luke Mahura, who was acquired shortly before the start of the season, has points in six of his last seven games and is in a tie for the team points lead with Blake Bosch at 10 points.
From the Cru’s side of things, playing their only game of the weekend at home has to feel pretty safe right now considering how their season has started. Inside Sherwood Park Arena, they’re 4-1, averaging 6.25 goals of offence per game with their only loss inside the arena coming to the Saints in late-September. On the road, it’s a completely different story for the team as after two opening-weekend victories in Grande Prairie, they’ve scored just 10 goals in five games.
Quickly making their way the South Division standings are the Canmore Eagles (8-4-1), who’ll make the road trip up north to take on the Pontiacs and Lloydminster Bobcats (11-2-0) this weekend.
Led by Canalta Hotels AJHL Player of the Week Matt Forchuk, the Eagles have gone 7-2-1 over their last 10 games to find themselves two points back of the Oilers for first in the division, surpassing the Bandits and Kodiaks along the way.
Forchuk has an active multi-point game streak of six games — six goals, 15 points — and will have it put to the test against the Bobcats and Pontiacs defence. As a group, the Eagles haven’t been that bad either, sporting a 5-1-1 record in one-goal games this year while also putting together a 7-3-1 record against the rest of the South Division.
The Calgary Mustangs (4-8-1) will also join the Eagles on the tour of Lloydminster and Bonnyville this weekend. Since sitting at 3-3 on Sept. 26 after a big 5-4 shootout comeback win against the Oil Barons, the Mustangs have gone 1-5-1. A trio of 1996-born Mustangs in Dondre Watson, Jared Virtanen and Joshua McCulloch have taken over the team’s scoring lead, account for half of the team’s 14 powerplay goals this year.
For the Bobcats, they continue to go stride-for-stride with the Saints in the Viterra North Division. A loss to the Saints on home ice at the end of September was met by them returning the favour earlier this week in a 5-4 victory inside Grant Fuhr Arena. What’s more impressive is the way they’ve spread out their scoring, with five different players sitting at or above the five-goal mark 13 games into their season.
Moving back to southern Alberta, the Calgary Canucks (5-9-1) will play a lone game against the Dragons as the Max Bell Centre Saturday. As strange as it may sound, the Canucks may actually prefer to play this game on the road, considering they’ve got the most road wins amongst South Division — five other South teams sit at three — which has helped the Canucks maintain sixth place in their division through the first quarter of their season.
The Canucks actually gained their first home win of the year against the Dragons Tuesday in a 5-1 victory, a good start to an 11-day span that’ll see the teams meet three times.
For the Dragons, their weekend will begin Friday when they host the MOB at the Drumheller Memorial Arena Friday evening. The Dragons will be out for revenge after the MOB scored their first win of the season in overtime against them last Friday. In fact, the month of October hasn’t been kind to the Dragons, who went 1-3-1 in their first five games and still have road games in Spruce Grove and Okotoks before the month is out.
Import forward Levi Wunder has lived up to the billing of his last name for the Dragons, scoring in all but two games for the Dragons this year, sharing a tie for the team’s points lead and chipping in two short-handed goals, which lead the league.
The MOB’s last opponent of the weekend, the Olds Grizzlys, will host a pair of Viterra North Division teams in the Whitecourt Wolverines (8-2-2) Friday and the MOB Saturday. This weekend will also mark the start of a four-game stint at the Olds Sportsplex from the Grizzlys, where they’re 1-3 this season. Hometown product Chase Olsen has seven goals and 13 points in 11 games to start the season.
The Wolverines will conclude their tour of central Alberta with a Saturday evening matchup against the Kodiaks at the Encana Arena. A 7-2-1 record over their last 10 games has the Wolverines fourth in the division, one point behind the Pontiacs with three games in hand. That strong play has no doubt been a team effort, but it would be impolite not to mention the defence of the Wolverines, who sit fifth in the league with 2.67 goals allowed per game while goaltender Tanner McCorriston has won his last five starts.
Before the Kodiaks and Wolverines meet Saturday, the Oilers will face the Kodiaks in Camrose for the first time this year after meeting twice already in Okotoks, which the Oilers won by 2-1 and 1-0 scores. Looking to continue the trend of strong Kodiaks goaltenders, 1998-born net minder Brodan Salmond has a 5-1 record this year with a .919 save percentage and 2.35 goals against average. Forward Tanner Younghans appears to be having a breakout season with four goals and 10 points through 11 games, not far behind the 19 points he had in 43 career AJHL games entering the year.
Saving one of the best for last, the Bonnyville Pontiacs were a disappointing 2-5-1 as of Sept. 25’s 8-0 loss to the Saints. As of Oct. 15, they’re riding a seven-game winning streak — the longest in the AJHL at the moment — and will look to extend it this weekend at home against the Eagles Friday and the Mustangs Saturday. That success has largely come from a pair of players in forward Bobby McMann and defenceman Brinson Pasichnuk. McMann is riding a seven-game point streak and four-game goal scoring streak while Pasichnuk has four goals and 11 points in his last four games.
By Robert Murray