It’s not North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio State and Florida.
It’s Spruce Grove, Fort McMurray, Brooks and Olds.
It’s the AJHL’s answer the Final Four and starting this weekend, these clubs will start the process of determining this year’s Enerflex Cup opponents.
This year’s semi-finals are a case of ‘the usual suspects’ in one division and ‘new kids on the block’ in the other.
It’s hard to imagine any two teams knowing each other any better than the Saints and Oil Barons.
Four of the last five years, these teams have met deep in the post-season, and Spruce Grove has certainly had the better of the results.
Again this year, the teams were one and two in the standings, with just two points separating the clubs, Fort Mac even had one more win, but Spruce Grove earned the bye, while The Mob had to play one extra series.
But to this point, both teams have had little difficulty in the run.
“That’s what you play the season for, to have that Game 7 on your home ice if it comes to that,” says Saints coach and GM Jason McKee.
He says there aren’t a lot of secrets between the two northern rivals. He says he likes his team’s depth and experience but knows they’ll have a tough go from Fort McMurray.
“They are deep and experienced and have a lot of offensive talent. They also manage the puck very well, so we’re just going to have to play our style of game, be disciplined, and grind for 60 minutes because we know they will.”
MOB boss Gord Thibodeau echoes similar sentiments.
“They are very well coached, they have a lot of vets, a lot of experience, a high skill set and their special teams will take advantage of their chances, so we will have to bury our own opportunities with the man advantage,” says Thibodeau.
He says he’s been happy for the most part in his team’s play but knows they’ll have to be better to tip the defending league champs.
“We’ve been OK, for the most part but we’ve been a little hit-and-miss too. We know our effort will have to be more consistent.”
The MOB offense dominates the playoff scoring race with Justin Rose, Markus Gerbrandt and Killian Hutt all leading on 16 points.
Both coaches know goaltending will be key and both are happy with where they are at.
“Our goaltending has been very good, not outstanding, certainly solid but we know it will have to be better, said Thibodeau.
Brody Hoffman has carried the goaltending mail, picking up five wins and boasting a save percentage of .917.
“We are lucky in that we have two very experienced goaltenders to depend upon,” says McKee of Joel Miller and Brenden Jensen.
The Barons dispensed with the Grande Prairie Storm in short order, then knocked off Sherwood Park, despite losing a game in that series.
Spruce Grove took on the upstart Drayton Valley Thunder who stunned the Lloydminster Bobcats in round one. It was a sweep, but Jason McKee says the series was a challenge.
“They really tested us, we had to earn every game in that series.”
In the South, it’s a bit of a new picture. The Brooks Bandits are coming off of their first regular season league championship, enjoyed a bye then made short order of the Calgary Canucks who had upset the Camrose Kodiaks.
The Grizzlys meanwhile are the enigma in this foursome. At Christmas, the team was mere points out of last place. New coach and GM Brett Hopfe says it was at that point the crew dedicated themselves to work ethic and accountability and gradually climbed up the rungs one by one to fifth. They won the opening series against the Calgary Mustangs, then knocked off the favoured Okotoks Oilers (they did not have home ice in either series) to earn the opportunity to play Brooks.
“We know that to be successful we have to have a solid work ethic,” said Hopfe.
“We have gone through an awful lot of adversity this year, and sure, not a lot of people probably expected us to be here, but we made a commitment to each other, worked very hard and we are just extremely excited to have the opportunity to play Brooks. They’re a great team” he says.
Hopfe knows the deck is stacked in the Bandits favour, and that means no margin for error.
“Their powerplay is lethal; they are so skilled, so certainly we have to minimize the powerplay opportunities we give them, kill the ones we do, and capitalize on our opportunities.”
Brooks boss Ryan Papaionanou says winning a title was great, but it has been a challenge keeping his Bandits on edge with so little hockey and so much time off.
Papaionanou says apart from injuries to three 20 year olds Taylor Elliott, Cory Kloss and Reed Linaker, everyone is available to play.
He realizes the Grizzlys club he is about to face is not the same team they dominated early in the year.
“They are an extremely different team since Christmas. They play with great pride and work hard at all times. We know they are physical and play a relentless style. We know exactly what we are up against.”
The action gets underway Friday in Spruce Grove and Brooks.