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Over one month into the 2017-2018 of the AJHL Regular Season, the identity of teams is starting to take shape with log jams found in both the Viterra AJHL North and South standings as we head into the weekend. Just 10 points separate second and sixth in the North while the South has a gap of just 8 points between 2nd and last.
The action starts tonight with an interdivisional matchup between the Bonnyville Pontiacs (4-7-1) and the Camrose Kodiaks (4-5-3) at the Encana Arena. It’s the first game of the year between the two, and Bonnyville comes into it on a three game slide while the Kodiaks have lost four in a row. Tonight, one of those streaks is guaranteed to end. The Kodiaks have had no problem supplying offence, even during their current skid, as they’ve scored 13 goals over that stretch. All but a single loss in the Kodiaks streak is also by just a single goal, and their most recent setback (5-3 to Drumheller) involved an empty net goal against. As for the Pontiacs, they’re coming off consecutive 4-2 setbacks after a shootout loss to the north division leading Oil Barons. The Pontiacs go on to play two more times this weekend, hosting the Calgary Mustangs on Saturday and the Sherwood Park Crusaders on Sunday. The Kodiaks have just a single game after tonight when the Brooks Bandits pay them a visit Saturday.
This weekend also features two jam packed northern road trips for two southern teams as both the Calgary Canucks (6-7-0) and Drumheller Dragons (9-3-1) will play three road games in three days. The Canucks will start in Grande Prairie against the Storm on Friday, who are off to a solid start at 7-5-2. The Storm have been paced offensively by a dynamic trio of ’97 born forwards- Edouard Michaud, Justin Bernier and Dallas Comeau- while ’98 forward Connor Blake also finds himself inside the Top 10 league scorers. From there, the Canucks will visit the Whitecourt Wolverines (7-4-3) on Saturday and the Drayton Valley Thunder (1-12-0) on Sunday. After a 3-7 start, the Canucks have rattled off a three game win streak to sniff a .500 record.
As for the Drumheller Dragons, their northern trek will take them to the same locales and their weekend begins with a matchup against the struggling Thunder. Drayton Valley is at risk of having their losing streak stretch into dreaded double-digit territory and they’ll need a strong effort against the Dragons potent offence which features a top scorer in ’98 forward Jordan Taupert- he’s racked up 23 points in just 13 games. From there, Drumheller’s road trip will take them to Grande Prairie on Saturday before capping off the weekend against the Wolverines in Whitecourt on Sunday. The contests against the Dragons and Canucks represent the only games for the Storm this weekend.
Shifting to the north, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (10-1-1) look to continue their hot play of late as they’ve won five in a row. The MOB are at home at the Casman Centre all weekend, entertaining the Calgary Mustangs (5-8-1) on Friday and the Sherwood Park Crusaders (6-5-1) on Saturday. If there’s any fault to be found with the Oil Barons early on this season, it’s been a less than stellar power play. Heading into the weekend, it currently sits at a disappointing 5/49- good for 10.2% on the season and second last in the AJHL. Friday’s game against the Mustangs might be an opportunity for the power play to find its punch as Calgary has allowed 14 power play goals to opponents on 59 opportunities so far this season and they’ve been victimized on the man-advantage at least once in each of their last five games. On Saturday, the matchup between the Oil Barons and Crusaders will be the first meeting of the year between the two. In fact, the Oil Barons have only played three teams more than once (Spruce Grove, Lloydminster and Grande Prairie) so their record also indicates consistent performance no matter who the opponent has been so far this season.
The Brooks Bandits (8-4-1) are home on Friday to the Canmore Eagles (7-6-1) for the teams’ first meeting of the year down at the Centennial Regional Arena. Both teams are coming off losses, but the Bandits appear to be trending up with four wins in their last five games while the Eagles have lost two of three coming off of a four game win streak. Like the Oil Barons, the Bandits power play is also off to an uncharacteristic start with an efficiency of 11.9%. After both teams travel, Brooks will find themselves in Camrose on Saturday night while the Eagles host the Olds Grizzlys (5-7-1) on Sunday.
The Grizzlys are one of three teams tied for 6th in the south division right now with 11 points and are hoping to be coming off of a win Friday night against the league leading Okotoks Oilers (12-1-0). It’s not going to be easy, as after dropping their first game of the season Okotoks is already back on a two game win streak (with both victories coming in overtime) while the offence also leads the league with 60 goals. The Oilers have scored at least three goals in every game this season but one, with the only exception their 4-2 loss to Fort McMurray earlier this month. After playing the Grizzlys, the Oilers are idle for the rest of the weekend.
Two other teams with a single game schedule this weekend are the Spruce Grove Saints and the Lloydminster Bobcats- and they’re playing each other. While much of the on ice action features foes meeting for one of their first games this season, it will be the exact opposite on Friday night at the Grant Fuhr Arena as the Bobcats make their second trip to Spruce Grove for the third meeting between the two clubs overall. The last time these two teams met, in Lloydminster on October 11th, a multiple fight situation occurred in the 3rd period of the 3-1 Saints win resulting in single game suspensions for both head coaches and two game suspensions for Austin Parmiter and Dylan Bourlai of the Saints and Cole Johnson and Evan Wood of the Bobcats. All four players were eligible to return in their games last night.
-Tom Strangward @TheOneNDTom