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We started with eight, and now we’re down to the final two teams in the Viterra AJHL North Division as the Division Finals are set to begin. It all gets started tonight in the suburbs of Edmonton with one of the biggest rivals in the Canadian Junior Hockey League as the Sherwood Park Crusaders and Spruce Grove Saints go head to head with the winner becoming the Kings of the North.
The Sherwood Park Crusaders are on their deepest playoff run since 2002/03 when they made it the North Division Finals and were eliminated by the St Albert Saints in four games. Since then, the Crusaders haven’t been able to get over the second round hump and have consistently finished in the middle of the North Division standings. General Manager Kyle Chase has done his best to change the mediocre culture that has surrendered the organization and, so far, his plan is falling perfectly into place.
While the Crusaders may not have the experience of the post season, they substitute that with one of the most skilled rosters in the AJHL. They had seven players scoring at a point per game rate or higher in the regular season and were led by rookie sensation Carter Savoie. Savoie scored 73 points (31 goals, 42 assists) in 58 games and was named to the Viterra AJHL All-League and All-Rookie teams along with receiving Rookie of the Year honours. In the Crusaders second-round matchup versus the Oil Barons, he scored five points including the game-winner in overtime in game three.
Captain Tyler Jette has come up clutch for his team with seven points (1 goal, 6 assists) so far this post season. A couple of in-season acquisitions, Jack Hamly and Zach Kaiser, have also played a crucial role for the Crusaders with Hamly scoring five points against his former team in the second round and Kaiser picking up four points in as many games after missing the first two of the series.
Between the pipes, Matt Berlin has been nothing short of outstanding for the Crusaders. His playoff experience has been on full display with his steady and calming presence in goal along with many highlight reel saves. The Edmonton native holds a 2.30 GAA along with a 0.924 SV% with one shut out to his name.
Sherwood Park is capable of rolling all four lines each night with a legitimate scoring threat coming at you on each of them. They arrive at you in waves and can be difficult to contain. They’re also as strong on the blueline with the likes of Jette, Michael Benning, and Reid Irwin holding down the line. Plus, with Berlin in the blue paint, the Crusaders are a tough team to beat in any aspect of the game.
At the other end of the ice, the Spruce Grove Saints are in familiar territory having gone to eight of the previous nine Divisional Finals. In seven of those appearances, they have moved onto the league finals and won five times. There most recent came last season when they defeated the Okotoks Oilers in five games. With ten players returning from their 2018 championship roster, the Saints have plenty of experience heading into the third round.
To get to this point, the Saints have leaned on those veterans to lead the way, and that’s precisely what’s happened. The trio of Logan Gaine, Parker Saretsky, and TJ Lloyd have been fantastic for Spruce Grove in all aspects of the game. Gaine leads the team with 10 points (3 goals, 7 assists) through two rounds with Parker Saretsky right behind him with 9 points (3 goals, 6 assists) to his name. On the backend, while the Saints defence continues to heal, Lloyd has led by example as his team has put on a superb defensive display throughout the post season.
Their rookie goaltender, Matthew Davis, has also been a critical part of their success giving them a chance to win every night. In his first playoff run, the Calgary native has two shutouts along with a 1.32 GAA and a 0.941 SV%.
On top of that experience they already have, throughout the season General Manager Rob Sklaruk has continued to add more veteran pieces to his roster to bulk up for the long playoff run with the likes of Cole Basnett, Mackenzie Harden and Ryan Peckford all joining the organization with plenty of junior hockey games under their belts. Basnett was a member of the 2018 Okotoks Oilers that met the Saints in the AJHL finals, Harden had over 150 junior games to his name before joining at the deadline, and Peckford played in 200 WHL games with the Victoria Royals and Moose Jaw Warriors before returning to his home town.
While they may not have the name value offensive they’ve had in the past, Spruce Grove has a deep group of forwards that can also come at you in waves and hurt you in different ways. Their strength comes on the defensive side of the puck where they finished with the fewest goals allowed in the North Division. Lloyd and his defence will need to be in top form if they want to shut down the Crusaders offence.
The season series between the two crosstown rivals swings in the Crusaders way with a 4-2-0 record versus the Saints. Their last meeting came on December 30th, 2018, when Spruce Grove dominated Sherwood Park 9-3 at the Grant Fuhr Arena despite being down 3-1 five minutes into the second period. The outcome of that game isn’t what fans should expect in this divisional series. Of their six meetings, three were determined by a one-goal differential with one going further than the five minutes of extra hockey and to a shootout which the Crusaders would eventually win. However, it has been a while since the two crosstown rivals have a met, and a lot has changed within both organizations with personnel on the ice.
Fans should buckle in for what could be one of the best playoff series the AJHL has ever seen.
Story by Liam Horrobin