It was only two seasons ago that the Spruce Grove Saints and Fort McMurray Oil Barons met in the AJHL North Division final. That series went the distance, with the Saints finally picking up the victory in Game 7 to move on to the Gas Drive Cup Final where they won the next four straight over Drumheller to win their third league championship in franchise history.
Since then, the Saints won another Gas Drive Cup the following season and started this year off a perfect through their first two games before losing to Lloydminster on Wednesday, while the Oil Barons were eliminated last season in the first round and are off to the worst start in franchise history, having yet to win a game in their first 11 games, going 0-8-3.
Two short years but different directions for two historically competitive franchises.
Spruce Grove has a dynamite offence led by Tyler Busch and Brandon Biro, who have combined for 15 goals and 31 points, while the Saints themselves have scored 53 goals this season, the most of any team in the league. Led by the third best power play (26.53%) and third ranked penalty kill (85.42), the Saints are simply built to win hockey games.
Fort McMurray, on the other hand, is in a three-way tie for second last in goals for, having only scored 25 times this season, while giving up the second most in the league at 47. Gone is the offence that use to match what the Saints could do, as now they are simply looking for a way to win any game and not find a way to shoot themselves in the foot.
The Saints are in Grande Prairie (2-6-2) for back-to-back games with the Storm, while Fort McMurray welcomes Drumheller (5-4-0) Friday and the Calgary Canucks (3-7-1) on Saturday. As the AJHL gets closer to the quarter mark of the season, the Saints will look to continue their impressive start, while the Oil Barons are hoping the next quarter isn't as rough as the first.
South lead up for grabs Saturday
Saturday night will see the best two in the South Division meeting for the second time this season, and just like their first matchup back on Sept. 26, it should be a close contest for the division lead. The Okotoks Oilers earned the first victory of the season over Camrose with a 2-1 victory, scoring both goals in the first period.
Led by the leagues top power play (34.88%) and penalty kill (89.09%) the Oilers also boast the leagues top goal scorer in Matt McNair, whose 11 tallies in 10 games are a quarter of the 41 goals the team has scored this season, while also having the best goal differential of plus-15.
But those are just very subtle difference when you put them beside the Camrose Kodiaks, whose plus-13 goal differential and sixth best power play make them as even as they come. Both have seven victories this season, which could be eight before they meet on Saturday, as Okotoks is home to the Olds Grizzlys, while Camrose is in Canmore, setting up Saturday to be for the division lead.
Keeping up with the leaders
With Spruce Grove and Lloydminster constantly winning in the North Divsion, the rest of the division is trying their best to keep up. Bonnyville and Whitecourt have the league's current longest winning streaks at five- and four-games each. The Pontiacs are one point up on the Wolverines in the standings, but are five back of the Bobcats and Saints.
With only one win in their first six games, the Pontiacs have done a good job turning things around quickly in the early portion of the season, winning their last five straight. In two losses to Spruce Grove the Pontiacs gave up 16 goals combined, so don't let their minus-2 goal differential fool you into thinking they can't make saves, as the Saint have been scoring in numbers on everyone, while the Pontaics themselves have Bobby McMann, who currently is leading the league with 10 goals and 16 points.
Whitecourt has scored 24 goals during their four game win streak, while their 28 goals allowed is third lowest in the division. With only 10 games played this season, their .700 win percentage is just behind the top two in the division and is fifth overall in the league, so it is only their small sample size of games that is holding them back from being in contention for the No. 2 spot in the division.
Bonnyville is home to Drumheller on Saturday, while the Wolverines are home to Drayton Valley and Sherwood Park over the weekend.
Single game Sunday
The only game on the schedule for Sunday is the Calgary Canucks visiting Sherwood Park in a cross divisions matchup. If you asked anyone who would have the second most goals in the North Division, Sherwood Park probably wouldn't come up that often, however, with 40 goals in just nine games, the Crusaders have been finding the back of the net at a quality pace. Unfortunately, it hasn't resulted in a lot more wins than losses, as their 5-4-0 record puts them in the middle of the division. And with a league worst penalty kill at 65.96%, the Crusaders aren't doing themselves any favours.
But against the Canucks,Calgary's power play has only scored nine times on a league high 57 extra man opportunities. With 25 goals this seaosn, the Canucks are the lowest scoring team in the South Division, while their 46 goals is the most given up in the South. With two games up on the Olds Grizzlys, it may not be long for the Canucks to be in the basement of the division, and it could be a hard dig out for the Calgary born and bred team.
by Andrew Brethauer