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As the end of October and Halloween approaches, the first quarter of the 2016-17 Alberta Junior Hockey League season has been a treat to some and a trick on others.
Looking for any sort of separation at the top of the Viterra AJHL North Division standings, the Bonnyville Pontiacs (13-2-0) and Fort McMurray Oil Barons (13-4-0) will face similar teams this weekend in the Brooks Bandits (9-3-2) and Okotoks Oilers (9-4-2).
The Pontiacs will get the favourable draw on both nights, facing the Bandits Friday and the Oilers Saturday, hitting both teams on the tail-end of back-to-back games. The Pontiacs are also an impressive 8-1 as the home team this year. Their current pace of 4.8 goals per game, if maintained, would help them break a franchise mark for goals in a season. Averaging 5.0 goals per game at the RJ Lalonde Arena will help that.
For the MOB, their surprising improvement, even through a tougher October schedule, has quickly helped them separate themselves from the lower-tier teams in the division. The goaltending duo of Eric Szudor and Forbes Ploszaj have combined to allow 33 goals through the team’s first 16 games. Ploszaj is making the most of his final season in junior hockey. The 1996-born import from Arizona is the lone remaining undefeated goaltender in the league at 7-0.
The Bandits visited the Casman Centre in Fort McMurray Thursday winning by a 4-1 score. While the Bandits are second in Viterra AJHL South Division at the moment, the two games they have in hand on the division-leading Calgary Canucks (11-4-1) could quickly bring them back into the conversation for first place. Defenceman Cale Makar has two goals and nine points on a six-game point streak.
Also making the journey north will be the Oilers, who are undefeated in regulation as the road team against North Division squads, sitting at 2-0-1 for the moment. This weekend could bring an end to that though by facing the top two teams. To counter, the Oilers will need a strong performance from Riley Morris, who started the season 5-1, but has since gone 1-2-2. Defenceman Jordan Davies, who leads the Oilers with 16 points, has just three assists in his last five games following an eight-game point streak.
The Canucks, leading the Viterra AJHL South Division, will attempt to strengthen their grip on the division lead and finish off a hot October at the same time. They’ll host the Calgary Mustangs (3-13-0) at the Max Bell Centre Friday before a home date with the Camrose Kodiaks (9-5-1) Saturday.
Logan Drackett will be called upon once again to help his team to victory between the pipes. If he does end up with both starts, Canucks head coach James Poole will have a good reason to do so. Drackett is 2-1-1 in the second game when he makes back-to-back starts, despite carrying a .879 save % and 2.69 goals against average in those four games, below his .902 save % and 2.40 goals against average for the year. Offensive contributions also help too. Drackett picked up an assist, his third career AJHL point, in his last game against Camrose.
The Mustangs will try their luck in games against the Canucks and Drumheller Dragons (6-6-3). A 3-2 win over the Bandits last Sunday will serve as a morale-booster, but won’t wash away the team’s month of October, where they’ve gone 3-7. Already six points behind the Olds Grizzlys (5-7-2) for the final playoff spot in the Viterra AJHL South Division, there’s no time like the present to try and cut away at that gap. Getting their first road win of the season, as the Mustangs sit at 0-8, would also help their confidence.
In Drumheller Saturday, the Mustangs will face a Dragons team that has picked things up in their last 10 games, going 5-3-2 to put them back at five-hundred for the time being. The Dragons will be on the tail-end of a back-to-back after facing the Kodiaks the night before. The Dragons appear to be fining their groove after losing some tight games at the beginning of the year. They were locked in a dead heat with the Canucks through 40 minutes earlier this month before losing a grip on the game in the third period, and had yet to lose by more than a pair of goals before that game. One stat working against the Dragons is their 0-2 record against the Kodiaks already this year.
As part of the chase group in the South Division race, the Kodiaks will head out onto the road for their aforementioned road games against the Dragons and Canucks. The Kodiaks have yet to firmly establish what type of team they’ll be on the road, going 3-3-1 through their first seven games. Five of their night eight games on the road should help determine that. Mackenzie Bauer is one of four player in the top 15 point producers to this date who have single-digit penalty minutes, confirming their candidacy for the non-existent Lady Byng Award in the AJHL.
Returning to the North Division, the Whitecourt Wolverines (10-4-3) and Grande Prairie Storm (5-8-2) will play host to a pair of South Division teams each as the Canmore Eagles (7-5-2) and previously mention Grizzlys make their lone visit of the season to each rink. Friday, Olds visits Whitecourt while Canmore travels to Grande Prairie. Saturday, the two teams will trade opponents. The Eagles will conclude their northern swing with a date against the Drayton Valley Thunder (2-8-3) Sunday.
Next to the Pontiacs and Oil Barons, the Wolverines have been on a quiet solid run of their own, going 7-2-1 in their last 10. Playing at home, where they’re 5-1-2 this year, will also help play into the pair of weekend games as they continue an eight-game homestead they’re already 2-0-1 on. All 10 of the Wolverines’ goals through the first three games of the home stand have come at even strength, though that doesn’t mean there’s an issue with their power play at home. Clicking at 31.82%, that figure is the fourth-best man-advantage in the league, scoring seven goals in 22 opportunities.
On Grande Prairie’s end, the Storm are taking a visible step forward in the standings after three years of being relegated to eighth place. They’ll enter the weekend sixth in the division and have a chance to climb into fifth. Credit for that record has to go to their 4-2-1 record at Revolution Arena, which is subsidizing their less than desirable 1-6-1 record on the road. At their current pace, the Storm would finish with 48 points on the season, their highest total from any regular season in the past four campaigns.
Visiting the Scott Safety Centre first will be the Grizzlys, who have yet to win a non-AJHL Showcase road game in regulation this year. After going pointless in his first three games, Ryley Smith is riding an 11-game point streak. This weekend will see the Grizzlys wrap up a four-game road trip against the Viterra AJHL North. Entering this weekend, Olds is 1-8-1 in their last 10 games in North Division arenas, including losing both games on the similar trip to Whitecourt and Grande Prairie last year. Olds’ last won in Grande Prairie Oct. 9, 2014 and in Whitecourt Oct. 11, 2014.
Canmore’s three games in two-and-a-half days will be another test for the club that has a 5-3-2 record in their past 10 games and has yet compiled a good 4-2-1 record in October to remain in fifth in their division. As they look to gain ground on the top four teams in the Viterra AJHL South, they also risk falling as far as seventh. On one hand, the Eagles are three points behind the Kodiaks for fourth place, but sit one point ahead of the sixth-place Dragons and four ahead of the seventh-place Grizzlys, keeping their results in the win column, or at least managing to snag points from overtime or shootout losses will help keep them in contention for the time being. Through their first 14 games, the Eagles have allowed 3.43 goals per game, better than the 4.07 goals per game they were allowing at the same point last season. Matt Forchuk is the lone player in the AJHL averaging two points per game or better.
Battling for control of the last playoff spot in the North Division with the inactive Lloydminster Bobcats (2-12-1), the Thunder will be looking to make a return to the win column when they host the Spruce Grove Saints (11-4-2) Friday and the Sherwood Park Crusaders (7-9-0) Saturday. That may be easier said than done, given that the Thunder are 1-2-1 at home, 0-7-3 in their last 10 and possess the second worst goals against average of any team in the AJHL. Rhett Wilcox of Surrey, B.C. is suiting up with his fifth different Junior A team and is finding offensive success compared to his time in the BCHL. Through 13 games, Wilcox has four goals and 12 points, including one goal and five points on a four-game point streak he’ll take into the weekend.
For the Crusaders, as their lone weekend matchup, they’ll be looking to pick up a very winnable two points in the standings. In their last 10 games at the Drayton Valley Omniplex, the Cru are 5-3-2. Tyler Maltby leads the AJHL with 16 goals in 16 games, matching his output from his rookie season. His offensive success from this year have been well-documented already, but there are other players contributing for the Cru that will be able to help beyond this year.
Rookie Brendan Stafford has a goal and four points in his last two games while fellow newcomer Arjun Atwal has five assists in his last three games. Stafford has four multi-point games and Atwal has three multi-point games in the early stages of their AJHL careers.
Spruce Grove will start their weekend in Drayton Valley before concluding it in Fort McMurray Sunday afternoon. The Saints have had a player in the top 10 of league scoring for the past two years, but are not represented in this year’s top 10 so far. The team’s two leading scorers in Brett Smythe and Nicolas Correale, who each have 14 points, will have a chance to improve on their totals this weekend.
As has been the case with the Saints in previous campaigns, the lack of individual offensive success on the scoring charts have yet to make a serious impact on the team’s overall results. A 6-1 road record and a 3-1-1 record on a recent five-game home stand have kept the Saints a step behind the Pontiacs and MOB for the division lead, well within striking distance once they find their groove for a hot run. The Saints won the last meeting against the Thunder by a 2-1 final earlier this month and will look to continue their success, but will also enter the weekend seeking revenge on the MOB for a 1-0 shutout on home ice last weekend.