AJHL Weekend Preview: September 21st – 24th

Including today’s mid-day contest between the Camrose Kodiaks (1-0-1) and the Sherwood Park Crusaders (2-0-0), the AJHL boasts a 16-game schedule this weekend with ice in ten of the league’s arenas seeing the action.

Starting with the defending champions, the Brooks Bandits are looking to bounce back after a surprising opening weekend saw them stumble to an 0-2-0 start with a pair of losses against the Okotoks Oilers (2-0-0).  The Bandits have an opportunity at home on Friday, when they welcome the Calgary Mustangs (0-3-0) to the Centennial Regional Arena.  The Mustangs are winless through their first three games of the season and have allowed an average of four goals against per game while only scoring an average of just under two per game.  New Mustangs head coach Tyler Drader, on the other side, will be looking to continue turning the fortunes of the franchise around after another long offseason.  The Bandits will then hit the road to Drumheller to take on the Dragons (2-1-0) on Saturday.

Both the Bandits and Dragons will be playing on their second consecutive night Saturday, but it will be the Dragons who have the potential to be road weary after playing against the Saints (2-0-0) in Spruce Grove the previous night.  After an opening night loss to the Kodiaks, the Dragons have rattled off two wins in a row while ’98 forward Jordan Taupert is part of an early battle at the top of the scoring race with six points- three goals and three assists. 

Staying in the south, Saturday already marks the second all-Calgary game on this year’s AJHL schedule, with the Canucks (2-0-0) hosting the Mustangs for the second time this season.  After picking up a 5-2 win over the ‘Stangs on Tuesday, the Canucks open up their weekend against their cross-town rivals before heading out on the road to Olds for a Sunday game.  New Canucks bench boss Colin Birkas has picked up where his predecessor James Poole left off, as the Canucks are undefeated off the hop.

Back in the north, after hosting the Dragons in an inter-divisional matchup Friday, the Saints will stay at home to face the Bonnyville Pontiacs (2-1-0) on Saturday.  The Saturday game at the Grant Fuhr Arena represents the only game of the weekend for the ‘Yaks, as their dynamic offensive trio of Derek Brown, PJ Marrocco and Brandon Whistle will run into a skilled Saints blueline and a sturdy Nolan Kent in net.  Kent made 56 saves on 59 shots in a pair of wins against Whitecourt last weekend. Spruce Grove is looking to stay undefeated under new head coach Bram Stephen, who joked he earned his first AJHL win much sooner than his first ACAC win as coach of the MacEwan Griffins five years ago, which took 14 games.

While Stephen looks to add to his two career victories over the weekend, the coach he beat for those wins, Gord Thibodeau, is looking for his Whitecourt Wolverines (1-1-1) to build off his 1,000th “W” behind an AJHL bench.  The Wolverines are the busiest team in the AJHL this weekend, playing a trio of road games back-to-back-to-back.  On Friday, the Wolverines visit the winless Olds Grizzlys.  The Grizzlys (0-1-0) have played the least amount of games so far this season, dropping a 5-1 decision on the road to the Calgary Canucks over the opening weekend.  This means the Grizzlys will awake from hibernation to take on the Wolverines for their home opener at the Olds Sportsplex, which also marks the start of a three game home stand for the Grizz that continues on Sunday against the Calgary Canucks. 

From Olds, the Wolverines make their way north back home with a stop in Camrose on Saturday to keep their bear hunt going against the Kodiaks and then cap it off with a matinee against the Crusaders on Sunday in Sherwood Park.  The Crusaders are filling the net these days, too, as they put twelve pucks past the Drayton Valley Thunder in two games last week.  Third year forward Ty Readman was in on half of the Cru’s offence, with his six points earning Canalta Hotels AJHL Player of the Week honours.  The Crusaders are also at home for both their games this weekend and have the luxury of a two-day break: they play the Kodiaks on Thursday and the Wolverines on Sunday.

Staying in the AJHL South, an intriguing matchup between two teams off to hot starts can be found at the Pason Centennial Arena in Okotoks as the Oilers host the Canmore Eagles (2-1-0).  There may be a number of things to do in Okotoks, but these two games should be at the top of the list for local fans.  The Eagles head into Okotoks with the Alberta Ford Dealers AJHL Defensive Player of the Week, as goaltender Thomas Davis made 88 saves in two victories over the Calgary Mustangs on opening weekend.  The 19 year old netminder could be tested frequently again, as the Oilers should still be flying high after beating the Bandits in both teams’ home openers last weekend. 

Moving from the south, we go up the QE 2 and Highway 63 to Fort McMurray, where a division rivalry renews with the Oil Barons (2-0-0) hosting the feisty Lloydminster Bobcats (1-2-0) for the MOB’s first home games of the year.  The early season meeting is a pairing of polar opposites from last season, as Fort McMurray captured the North Division regular season title while the Bobcats missed the playoffs despite a second half surge.  On the plus side for the Bobcats, they’re 1-2 through their first two games which is an improvement over last year’s 11-game losing streak to start the season.  The Bobcats showed terrific leaps forward in the second half last year and it could be another weekend of close games for the Oil Barons, who had spirited contests on the road last week against the Grande Prairie Storm (1-3-0), escaping G.P. with 3-2 and 6-5 victories.

Speaking of the Storm, they’ll be on the road for an all-meteorological matchup at the Drayton Valley Omniplex this weekend to take on the Thunder.  The Storm earned their first win of the season with an 8-1 triumph over the Bobcats on Wednesday.  Through their first three games the Thunder have allowed a league-high 16 goals against.  The road trip for the Storm is also an opportunity to get a positive start on an issue which plagued the club last season, as they compiled a disappointing 4-23-1 road record in 2016/2017.  This was behind only the Calgary Mustangs who had a single road win. 

Whether teams are undefeated or winless heading into this weekend, there’s plenty of hockey left to be played this AJHL season and plenty of potential for divisional shuffling. 

-Tom Strangward