North Division Semi Finals Preview

Photo – Target Photography:

Friday night will see the start of the second round series between Whitecourt and Spruce Grove, while Fort McMurray and Bonnyville will begin on Saturday night.

(1) Fort McMurray Oil Barons vs. (4) Bonnyville Pontiacs

Season series: If there was one word to describe the season series, it would be hodgepodge, defined as a confusing mixture. Both teams split the series down the middle, earning three wins from the six games, though the Pontiacs took an extra point from an OT loss.

Home-ice didn’t appear to matter at all, with both teams winning two of their three games on the road. The Pontiacs won the first two meetings, before the clubs split a pair of games in November. The MOB then won the final two meetings of the season, including a 2-0 win at the RJ Lalonde Arena Feb. 26.

This series should be a fun one to say the least, with two high-powered offences going at each other with no real consensus as to who was the better team in the head-to-head matchup.

How did the last playoff matchup go: As much as the Pontiacs and Sherwood Park Crusaders have faced each other in the first round, the second round matchups belong to the Pontiacs and MOB.

Between the 2005-06 and 2010-11 seasons both teams met four times, with three of those series in the second round. The MOB won all four post-season meetings, last taking a six-game series in the 2011 pla

Motivation: While their regular season performances have been indicative of a strong contender in the North Division, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons have faced a different fate in the post-season.

They have just one AJHL playoff win in their last two seasons and have been handed first-round playoff exits in three of the past four seasons. The opposite side to that are three trips to the North Division final since the 2010-11 season and one league championship appearance. It’s an impressive feat and a situation six other North Division teams would gladly volunteer to be in, but the MOB still remain in search of their first league championship since the 2005-06 season.

This year’s team has the right mix of players that can do that, but when they’ve taken nights off, their play drops dramatically. Head Coach Tom Keca will no doubt keep his players focused, but with a team like the Pontiacs ready to pounce on the slightest mistake, every play will be magnified and present the opportunity change the momentum in the series.

The Pontiacs last tasted the North Division final in the 2014-15 season and getting back there again would be another boost for the franchise. Overcoming the aforementioned playoff losses to the MOB would be a step forward for the club, especially right after snapping a streak of three straight playoff series losses to the Cru. Their performance this season wasn’t terrible, considering what they had to face in the trio of teams ahead of them, but there’s still a question of if their big players can rise to the occasion to shut down a team like the Barons.

X-Factor: There was a serious debate at the end of the 2015-16 regular season for the MOB as to who would start in net. There’s no debate this season, as Eric Szudor will start between the pipes for the MOB when the series starts up Saturday night at the Casman Centre. How his fantastic regular season translates to the post-season is still clearly up for debate since he hasn’t played a game, but it’s his experience to focus on and cultivate over the course of the series. He did see 16 minutes of action in last year’s post-season, and has yet to allow a goal from the eight total shots he faced, but this test against the Pontiac’s will be like none other. Szudor and the MOB will need to be sharp at all points of the series.

For the Pontiacs, having stable goaltending in net will help them. Over the course of the six-game season series, the MOB faced four different goaltenders for the Pontiacs and now have one of them serving as their backup in Josh Williams.

The conundrum for the Pontiacs is that Sandro Silvestre hasn’t shown any reason to give up his spot in net after leading his team to a first round victory over the Cru, but has lost both his starts against the MOB. He has allowed just two goals in both of those starts, posting respectable numbers outside of the win-loss column. Pontiacs backup Robert Jacobsen is 1-0-1 against the MOB this season. If the Pontiacs can’t figure out a way to give Silvestre goal support against the Barons, it could be a quick series.

(2) Whitecourt Wolverines vs. (3) Spruce Grove Saints

Season series:  Including a pair of exhibition games, the home team won al eight games of the season series, with only one game needing extra time when the Saints beat the Wolverines 3-2 in a shootout Feb. 10. The Saints also won the other one-goal game back in October as another 3-2 win.

At home, the Wolverines four goals per game while producing just 2.33 goals for per game on the road. For the Saints, they averaged 3.33 goals for per game at the Grant Fuhr Arena and, like the Wolverines, couldn’t produce on the road, scoring just 1.33 goals for per game at the Scott Safety Centre.

Whichever team is able to solve their road woes may just end up with a spot in the North Division Final by the end of March.

Individually, Brett Smythe leads all players from both sides with 10 points in the season series, split evenly with five goals and five assists. Teammate Garan Magnes tallied three goals and seven points against the Wolverines and Eric Benshadle had five assists.

For the Wolverines, Morgan Messenger and Eric Krienke each had six points against the Saints this season. Joseph Nardi and Mitch Lipon had five points each. Liam Motley managed to tie Messenger’s three goals while Justin Young had four assists.

How did the last playoff matchup go: There has only been one matchup between the two teams, coming in the 2012-13 North Division final, which the Saints won in five games. The Saints of course have been to four straight league finals since then, including that year. The Wolverines meanwhile have only won one playoff series since then, going down to defeat against the Lloydminster Bobcats all three times.

Motivation: For the past few seasons, the Wolverines have been that team everyone could feel good about penciling into making it to the North Division Final and every year they came up short.

Given the amount of change on both sides since last season, it would be unfair to hold that past history against either Gord Thibodeau or Mike Ringrose, but the aura of annual success still lingers over the Saints as does the bitterness of earlier-than-expected playoff exits for the Wolverines.

The talent is there for the squad, with what seems like the right combination veterans and rookies as well as solid defence and strong goaltending. Overcoming the Saints in this series could be the metaphorical barrier they need to get through to go all the way.

For Spruce Grove, this is a team that has become accustomed to being heavily involved, if not leading, the conversation for North Division title over the better part of the past decade. Gunning for their fifth-straight North Division title, that responsibility falls onto the shoulders of names like Ringrose, Harris and Mitchell among others this season. In a league where success can often be cyclical, the Saints have found themselves in seven of the last eight league finals, winning four of them.

Also on the line is a little history for the Saints. Plenty of teams have been to four straight league finals, most recently accomplished by the Camrose Kodiaks in the late 2000s, but getting to five straight league finals has seen only one team accomplish the feat. The Red Deer Rustlers of the early 1970s won four titles in a five-year span. The Saints are two-for-four in their recent trips, but adding a third title would obviously serve the organization well.

X-Factor: Cody Laskosky had an impressive rookie campaign, scoring 12 goals and 37 points to finish tied with Saints defenceman Ian Mitchell for scoring by 1999-born players. Through two playoff games, Laskosky has yet to secure a single point. There’s still plenty of time for New Norway, Alta. resident to find his way onto the score sheet in the post-season and when he does, that could be an extra spark the Wolverines may need to tip the series in their favour.

On the Saints’ end, their goaltending was a perceived weakness before the season began with the departure of Matt Murray. To say that Nolan Kent has filled the void would be a massive understatement as the 1998-born goaltender picked up 27 wins in his first regular season, posting four shutouts along the way.

Yes, the Saints are always a tough team defensively and Kent’s numbers may have had a boost due to that, but for a rookie to play 42 games and only lose back-to-back starts once, he’s been essential to keeping the Saints near the top of the standings. He’ll face his biggest test to date against the North Division’s best offence from the regular season. How he handles the pressure of the Wolverines will influence the outcome of the series.

By Robert Murray @NovaCanuck