Series Preview: North Division Final

For the second straight year, the Spruce Grove Saints and the Whitecourt Wolverines will meet in the AJHL Playoffs.  Last year, Whitecourt ended Spruce Grove’s season in a decisive Game 7 victory in the North Semi-Final, while this year it’s the Saints who have home ice advantage. 

Regardless of the point difference in the season, these teams are close competitors on the ice and among the AJHL’s best.  It will be hard to duplicate the excitement of the series that just ended between the Wolverines and Fort McMurray Oil Barons, but this North Final has the potential to do just that. 

(1) Spruce Grove Saints 97 Points VS (3) Whitecourt Wolverines 73 Points

Spruce Grove vs Whitecourt this season:
Record: 5-1-0
Home: 2-1-0
Away: 3-0-0
14 goals for, 7 goals against
Power Play: 3/16, 18.8%
Penalty Kill: 21/24, 87.5%
Post-secondary commitments: 7
Rookies: 10
Path to North Final: BYE; defeat Grande Prairie Storm 4-0.

Top Scorers vs Whitecourt (G-A-Pts): Chris Van Os-Shaw (3-3-6), Josh Harris (3-1-4), Logan Ganie (2-1-3), Parker Saretsky (0-3-3), Nolan Kent (3 wins, 1 loss, .947 Sv%, 1.24 GAA, 1 shutout)

Why the Spruce Grove Saints can win: The Spruce Grove Saints are emerging from one of the most lopsided series victories in recent memory against the Grande Prairie Storm, putting to rest any concerns about a lengthy first round bye causing any rust.  The Saints outscored the Storm 28-2, shutting them out three times, to earn another rest period before facing off against Whitecourt on Good Friday.  The depth demonstrated by the Saints roster was also noteworthy, as 12 players scored at a point-per-game pace or better while not a single Saint who played had less than two points in the sweep.  Game 1 of the North Final will be the Saints’ fifth hockey game in 27 days, making the regular season division champs well rested ahead of the most important time of the year.

Whitecourt vs Spruce Grove this season:
Home: 0-2-1
Away: 1-2-0
7 goals for, 14 goals against
Power Play: 3/24, 12.5%
Penalty Kill: 13/16, 81.3%
Post-secondary commitments: 3
Rookies: 7
Path to North Final: Swept Lloydminster Bobcats 3-0; defeat Fort McMurray Oil Barons 4-3.

Top Scorers vs Spruce Grove: Tyr Thompson (1-1-2), Noah Tooke (1-1-2), Brayden Labant (0-2-2), Xavier Potvin (1 win, 3 losses, 1 overtime loss, .926 Sv%, 2.20 GAA)

Why the Whitecourt Wolverines can win:  The Wolverines may have only earned a single victory over Spruce Grove in the regular season, but the entire season series was finished before Christmas.  Both teams are different, and Whitecourt is coming off an emotional Game 7 overtime victory in an exceptional series against the Fort McMurray Oil Barons.  Xavier Potvin was a stand out in goal for the Wolverines, and he’ll have to stay that way against a rested Saints team which scored at will against Grande Prairie.  However, the Wolverines were able to limit Spruce Grove offensively all season, with the 14 goals allowed by Whitecourt being the fewest the Saints would score against any divisional opponent.  Whitecourt was also one of three teams to defeat the Saints on Grant Fuhr Arena ice this season. 

Series Factoids:
• The Whitecourt Wolverines defeated the Spruce Grove Saints 4-3 in a seven game semi-final last season.  Ten Saints remain from that roster, while seven current Wolverines took part in the year-old victory.  Current Whitecourt forward Brayden Labant was on the Saints team which lost the playoff match up last year.
• Goals were scarce in every meeting between the two teams this year.  Spruce Grove averaged 4.59 goals per game against every team other than Whitecourt, but only averaged 2.33 against the Wolverines.  The same trend can be seen for Whitecourt, as they averaged only 1.17 goals per game against the Saints but scored 3.70 goals per game against every other opponent.
• There were never more than five combined goals in a game between the two rivals, with only 12 goals being scored in the last four games overall.
• Only one player who played in every meeting averaged a point per game in the season series: AJHL MVP Chris Van Os-Shaw, who had three goals and six points in six games.
• Whitecourt and Spruce Grove haven’t met since December 16th, 2017- a 1-0 Saints road win.
• The Saints and Wolverines have met in the playoffs twice in the last five years, with each team taking a series. 
• This will be the 9th time since 2008 that Gord Thibodeau coaches against the Spruce Grove Saints in the playoffs- six times with the Oil Barons, once with the Bobcats and now twice with the Wolverines.

Twitter: @TomStrangward