North Division Preview – Division Semi-Finals

(1) Spruce Grove Saints vs. (5) Sherwood Park Crusaders

Season series: Spruce Grove went 4-1-1 against Sherwood Park in the regular season. Fans of the playoff battle from the past three years should be in store for another tight series if the regular season series is any indication. Four of the games this season were decided by a single goal while the other two were decided by two-goal margins, with both team winning in each other’s home rink by a pair of goals. The Crusaders won the last game 2-1 in Spruce Grove in overtime on Feb. 20.

Offensive Threats: Saints forward Brandon Biro will once again be a player to watch in this series. In nine career regular season games, the Sherwood Park native has four goals and nine points. In six career playoff games against the Cru, Biro has four goals and seven points. The Saints’ offence might begin with Biro, but it doesn’t end there either. A pair of 1996-born forwards in Tyler Busch and Colton Leiter, who finished first and third respectively on the team in scoring, will also challenge the Crusaders to at their best defensively.

Of the 16 goals the Crusaders scored in their first round victory, they came from the sticks of eight different players, giving a spread-out offence head coach Tm Fragle will more than likely be happy with. Kruper led all Crusaders with four goals and eight points in the first round while Cameron Brezinski posted three goals and six points in the full series.

In last year’s second round matchup, the Cru’s offence was coming off an outpouring against the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (17 goals for in four games) and looked like they suffered as a result through the first two games against the Saints The Saints had scored 11 goals in the series before the Crusaders finally scored 12:03 into the second period of the second game in the series.

Though the Cru managed to eventually win a pair of games, including putting up six goals on the Saints in game five, the Saints took full advantage offensively and could be poised to do the same thing this time around as well.

Net presence: It should go without saying that Matthew Murray will make the start in net for the Saints in Friday’s series opener. Murray s 3-0 with a 2.67 goals against average and .893 save % against the Crusaders this year. Murray also has yet to be hung with a loss by the Cru in regulation for his AJHL career.

At the opposite end of the ice, Zac Klassen brought his best to the Cru’s first round four-game victory over the Bonnyville Pontiacs, stopping 160 of the 170 shots the Pontiacs threw his way in 242:57 of action. Those numbers will need to hold up against the Saints in order to give the Cru a legitimate shot at winning the series. Putting in a strong performance against his cross-town rivals would also serve as a redemption story for Klassen, who played a grand total of 31:14 against the Saints last year, allowing eight goals on 18 shots.

Quirky stat(s): The Saints and Crusaders will meet in the post-season for the fourth straight year. Each time the two teams have met over the previous three seasons, the Crusaders have lost the series, but forced their cross-Edmonton rivals to earn the series victory, pushing the series to six games twice and seven games once. Those close series include a 2013 matchup 2013 when the Crusaders upset the Grande Prairie Storm in the first round and charged right into the Grant Fuhr Arena, winning the first game there before dropping four of the next five. In 2014, the home team didn’t win in the series until the seventh and final game when the Saints closed things out in their favour. In case you need to mark it on your calendars now, game seven goes March 29 in Spruce Grove.

Spruce Grove:  47 powerplay goals scored in 226 opportunities (20.80%), seventh in the AJHL, (3-25 in the season series)
Sherwood Park: 39 powerplay goals scored in 209 opportunities (18.66%), 11th in the AJHL, (4-17 in the season series)

Penalty Kill:
Spruce Grove: 32 powerplay goals allowed on 231 opportunities (86.15%), third in the AJHL, (13-17 in the season series)
Sherwood Park: 56 powerplay goals allowed on 286 opportunities (80.42%), eighth in the AJHL, (22-25 in the season series)

(2) Whitecourt Wolverines vs. (3) Lloydminster Bobcats

Season series: Whitecourt went 4-2 against Lloydminster in the regular season. For the third straight year, the Wolverines and Bobcats will meet in the post-season, with the series beginning in Whitecourt for the first time of those three meetings. Both team’s ended their first round matches with blowout victories, but there’s no guarantee the offence will come as easily in the coming possible seven games.

Offensive Threats: Cory Santoro entered the Wolverines’ first round matchup and tallied the first three goals of his AJHL career, including the game-winner in Sunday’s clinching victory. Eric Krienke also notched three goals in the series while Erik Pedersen led all Wolverines with six points.

In the span of just three games, Kevin Darrar tripled his goal-scoring efforts from last year’s 10-game post-season run. Through the first series, Darrar and teammate Ryan Chynoweth sit tied for the team lead in scoring with three goals and four points each. Four other Bobcats tallied four points in the first round while four others sit at three points heading into the second round.

Net presence: Tanner McCorriston looked solid in net for the Wolverines through their first round series against the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, stopping 58 of the 63 shots he faced and holding the MOB to a single goal in two of the three games. For a goalie who concluded his regular season AJHL career with a 54-20-8 record, his results in previous playoffs series have been more mixed.

In Sunday’s third game of the first round, McCorriston surpassed the 500 minute mark for playoff hockey and improved to 5-3 at the same time as well. His 1.67 goals against average is a solid figure, but could be just as big of a reflection of facing the league’s worst offensive team from the regular season in the first round. Either way, the Bobcats should provide McCorriston with a test he could use as a building block in his final junior hockey playoff run.

Countering McCorriston will be another 1995-born goaltender in Alex Leclerc, who won the first three AJHL playoff games of his career against Drayton Valley and will be looking to add to that total in the second round. While he posted a impressive 31-10-2 regular season record, he struggled in the final two games of regular season series against the Wolverines, allowing nine goals on 51 shots. If Leclerc does struggle early against the Wolverines, it’ll be interesting see what the breaking point would be in determining whether rookie Pierce Diamond suits up for a game with the Royal Bank Cup berth already assured. 

Quirky stat(s): The goal differential in the playoffs between the two clubs favours the Bobcats, who have outscored the Wolverines 33-26 in the nine career playoff games between the two franchises. That figure involves an 8-3 drubbing by the Bobcats on the Wolverines to close out last season’s series, but it’s the flow of the one-goal games that may deliver the majority of the excitement once the puck drops on the series. Four of the games have been decided by a goal with three of those coming in overtime.

Lloydminster has won the biggest of those one-goal games though, dating back to March 10, 2014. The Wolverines were 10 seconds away from clinching the series on home ice before a goal from Austin McDonald sent the game into overtime, where Taylor Mulder won it 4:35 in to force a fifth and deciding game, which the Bobcats won on home ice a few nights later.

The Wolverines would like nothing more than to finally get past the Bobcats and advance to their second Viterra AJHL North Division final in the past four seasons.

Whitecourt: 49 powerplay goals scored in 275 opportunities (17.82%), 12th in the AJHL, (4-32 in the season series)
Lloydminster: 55 powerplay goals scored in 260 opportunities (21.15%), 6th in the AJHL, (2-29 in the season series)

Penalty Kill:
Whitecourt: 38 powerplay goals allowed on 281 opportunities (86.48%), second in the AJHL, (27-29 in the season series)
Lloydminster: 37 powerplay goals allowed on 238 opportunities (84.45%), sixth in the AJHL, (28-32 in the season series)

By Robert Murray