AJHL Weekend Preview – September 25-27, 2015

As quickly as the 2015-16 Alberta Junior Hockey League season began, it’s almost time to conclude the first month of play in the league as several teams look to position themselves favourably heading into the month of October.

The weekend’s 15-game schedule kicks off Friday night with a rematch of the AJHL Viterra North Division Final from last year with the Bonnyville Pontiacs (2-4-1) and Spruce Grove Saints (5-0-0) squaring off at the Grant Fuhr Arena. The Saints will follow up that contest by making their first trip across Edmonton to face the Sherwood Park Crusaders (4-1-0) Saturday.

For the two-time defending Gas Drive Cup champions, it has been business as usual through their first five games. Their 26 goals scored through five games — including seven goals on the man-advantage — and eight allowed goals has them rolling. The Saints put up eight-goal efforts on the road — against Bonnyville – and at home.

Forward Brandon Biro also collected the Canalta Hotels AJHL Player of the Week award with a hat trick in the Saints’ home opening 8-0 victory and seven points in two games. Everything’s coming up Spruce Grove. 

Coming off the high of their appearance in the North Final last year, the Pontiacs are under a sluggish start to the season, being outscored 15-2 in their first three games an being held to a single goal in two of their other four contests. Forward Steenn Pasichnuk did his part for the Pontiacs Tuesday night against Whitecourt, scoring a hat trick in a 3-0 shutout in Whitecourt while recent addition Olivier Charest made a 39-save shutout in his fourth career AJHL start.

Things won’t get any easier for the Pontiacs as their opponent after the Saints happens to be the Brooks Bandits (3-1-0) Saturday at the RJ Lalonde Arena. The Bandits will be making their annual trip through northern Alberta, facing off against the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (0-5-0) Friday night.

Scoring at a rate of 6.5 goals per game with 10 powerplay goals and four short-handed goals in their first four games, the Bandits are quickly re-establishing their role in the AJHL’s Viterra South Division. The additions of Vermont-bound defencemen Joe O’Connor and forward Will Conley and recent commitment of forward Jeff Malott to Cornell University — giving the Bandits eight NCAA Division I commitments on their current roster.

Bandits forward Dylan McCrory enters the weekend tied with Saints forward Brandon Biro for the league’s points race, with his 2.3 points per game average the best on its own in the entire league right now.

Keeping the Bandits in second place for now are the Camrose Kodiaks (4-0-0), who have enjoyed their own offensive success in the early portion of the season and will look to continue that trend against the Okotoks Oilers (2-1-1) Saturday and Calgary Canucks (1-4-1) Sunday.

The Kodiaks are the only remaining team in the South Division to remain perfect against their seven divisional opponents, winning all three intra-divisional games so far by identical two-goal margins.

They’ll get a firm test in the Oilers, who open their weekend Friday against the Olds Grizzlys (2-2-0) before hosting Camrose Saturday. Oilers forward Trey DeGraffe finished the 2014-15 regular season with four points in his final three games and has picked up where he left off, scoring two goals and six points in his first four contests this season.

Goaltender Riley Morris is doing his best to fill the shoes of former Oilers goaltender Nic Renyard this year, stopping 36 of 38 shots against the Bandits while also allowing a single goal in his other start last weekend.

On Olds’ side of the ice, the team will complete and another home-and-away weekend, opening their weekend in Okotoks before hosting the Canucks Saturday to close out the weekend. Offence hasn’t been much of a question for the Grizzlys this season, but defence has as they’ve allowed five or more goals in three of their first four games.

Following the same path, the Canucks will attempt to continue their commitment to defence this weekend in games against the Grizzlys and Kodiaks. After giving up 19 goals in their first three games, the Canucks have given up just five goals in their past two.

Rookie goaltender Logan Drackett with wins in his past two starts have brought some stability to the Canucks’ net. Second-year forward Michael Clarke has enjoyed a hot start to his season, scoring two goals and five points in six games to lead the Canucks, putting him on pace to easily surpass his 19-point total from his rookie campaign. 

While the Canucks will stay stay closer to home, the Calgary Mustangs (2-3-0) will make their longest trip of the season, traveling to Fort McMurray to face the Oil Barons Saturday before facing the Crusaders in Sherwood Park Sunday afternoon.

Saturday’s game in Fort McMurray will be a special one for Mustangs captain Taylor Lileikis, who played 78 games with the MOB before being traded to his hometown team last season. The Mustangs have struggled to find consistency in the first five games of the season, but perhaps a break from South Division opponents and a matchup against the MOB could be the start of a good run for the Mustangs.

The MOB was buried by Sherwood Park on their first road game of the year last weekend, though clinging to their second one-goal loss against the Saints in a week could provide some momentum for the club. The return of defenceman Mark Drohan ignited the MOB’s powerplay on their first road trip and should help to temper the learning curve for the younger players on the squad. Forward Landon Welykholowa has taken over the team’s scoring lead, with three straight multi-point games.

While the Mustangs and MOB should be on a similar level, Friday’s matchup against Brooks for the MOB could be another long night for the rebuilding club. Recent acquisitions Ben Sharf and Jordan Funk will get their first chance to impress in a MOB uniform and could provide some much-needed help in the team’s top six.

For the Canucks’ Sunday opponents, the Cru are holding steady behind the Saints and Lloydminster Bobcats (5-0-0) for third place in the North Division. Ryan Kruper’s four goals and eight points in five games has helped the Cru maintain their success from last season while starting goaltender Zac Klassen has posted an early 3-1 record despite a 3.67 goals against average and .842 save percentage. Backup Austin McGrath dazzled in his debut, making 25 saves on 26 shots against the Pontiacs.

Staying in northern Alberta, the Bobcats and Drayton Valley Thunder (2-1-1) will complete a tour of the western side of the province with games against the Whitecourt Wolverines (2-2-1) and Grande Prairie Storm (0-3-2).

For the Bobcats, defence has been at the forefront of their early season success, with six goals allowed through five games. The Wolverines and Pontiacs have been the only team to manage to score more than a single goal against the Bobcats this season as the tandem of Alex Leclerc and Pierce Diamond have a combined .950 save percentage entering the weekend. While the contests on Friday and Saturday will be another critical four points up for grabs, the Bobcats are likely already looking ahead to Tuesday’s date against the Saints in what should be a battle of the two remaining perfect teams in the North Division. 

The Thunders’ trip to Whitecourt and Grande Prairie will mark the start of a five-game road trip for the club after three straight games at home. Making use of those three games, the Thunder earned five points from their first homestead of the season, including wins over the Wolverines and Storm. After suffering through a 7-4 result to begin the season in Whitecourt, the Thunder will look for a different fate in their second visit of the season to the Scott Safety Centre. With a 2-0 record, 1.92 goals against average and .951 save percentage, Garrett Mason has given the Thunder some stability in net to begin the season. while rookie forward Jordan McConnell leads the team in scoring with two goals and five points through four games.

Serving as the first host for both the Bobcats and the Thunder, the Wolverines are entering a pivotal stretch of three home games to close out September. A 3-0 loss to the Pontiacs Tuesday didn’t help their cause much, so wins at home will need to come soon for the Wolverines. Tuesday’s loss snapped a streak of three straight one-goal games the Wolverines were involved in.

After bouncing around in the Western Hockey League, the return of forward Linden Penner has paid off for both sides as Penner has three goals and four points in five games, including the game-winner during their home-opening win against the Thunder back on Sept. 11.

As the last stop for both clubs, the Grande Prairie Storm will be hoping to capitalize on two tired teams travelling their way. Aside for two extra points, the Storm have been shutout of moving up in the standings yet this year, staying level with just two points.  Forward Blake Bosch has points in four of the team’s five games while Josh Zablocki has scored in three of the past four contests for the Storm.

The last two teams in action this weekend will meet at the Drumheller Memorial Arena as the Canmore Eagles (3-2-0) and Drumheller Dragons (2-3-0) will meet for the second time this season. The Eagles have overcome a rough opening weekend to post three straight victories, including a 6-3 victory over the Dragons at home last weekend.

The Dragons will have to make good use of home-ice advantage as Sept. 25 is the last time they’ll play on home ice until Oct. 16, and even then they only play on it three times in the second month of the season. Though their competition may not necessarily reflect the strength of the road trip, the Dragons can’t afford to take any game for granted as the season’s points become more and more critical.