After battling for 58 games during the regular season, the top seven teams in the North Division qualified for the post-season with the Sherwood Park Crusaders receiving a first-round bye for the second consecutive season.
After previously playing a best-of-five series in the first round, the league opted to change to a seven-game series. With that being said, the post-season will begin this Saturday in Bonnyville and on Sunday, March 1 for the remainder of the Round One match-ups.
(#2) Spruce Grove Saints 43-13-2 vs (#7) Grande Prairie Storm 18-33-7
- Sept 23: Saints 3-1 Storm (Revolution Arena)
- Nov 24: Storm 3-4OT Saints (Grant Fuhr Arena)
- Nov 29: Saints 2-3OT Storm (Revolution Arena)
- Nov 30: Saints 5-6OT Storm (Revolution Arena)
- Jan 21: Storm 1-4 Saints (Grant Fuhr Arena)
- Feb 9: Storm 1-6 Saints (Grant Fuhr Arena)
The regular season series between the Saints and Storm was an interesting one. Before the New Year, three of their contests went to overtime with Grande Prairie getting the better of Spruce Grove on back-to-back nights in November. However, the Saints took full control of the season series capturing two big wins on home ice in January and February.
As of late, the two teams are heading in opposite directions as the post-season approaches. Spruce Grove ended the season with an 8-2-0 record in their final ten games with significant wins coming against the Sherwood Park Crusaders, Whitecourt Wolverines and Bonnyville Pontiacs. Matthew Davis (University of Denver) played a pivotal role during that time. The Calgary, AB native started in eight of those ten games and was named the Vittera Star of the Game on three occasions. After a dip in form towards the end of 2018, Davis is quickly becoming the Davis we all knew from the 2019 season.
However, on the other side of the red line, Grande Prairie has struggled majorly. Since beating the Crusaders on Jan 12, the Storm have won only once in the last 18 matchups and dropped down to seventh in the division. Their offence ran dry, scoring an average of only 1.72 goals for while allowing 3.78 goals against per game. Things will have to change and fast if the Storm wants to cause an upset in Round One.
(#3) Whitecourt Wolverines 32-17-9 vs (#6) Fort McMurray Oil Barons 20-34-4
- Nov 1: Wolverines 4-2 Oil Barons (Casman Centre)
- Nov 2: Wolverines 8-1 Oil Barons (Casman Centre)
- Nov 9: Oil Barons 3-4 Wolverines (Scott Safety Centre)
- Nov 10: Oil Barons 2-3 Wolverines (Scott Safety Centre)
- Jan 21: Wolverines 3-2OT Oil Barons (Casman Centre)
- Jan 26: Oil Barons 1-5 Wolverines (Scott Safety Centre)
The Whitecourt Wolverines went on quite the run to start 2020, elevating themselves over the Bonnyville Pontiacs into third place. They went 16-2-5 to close out the regular season and their goaltending duo – Vincent Duplessis and Connor Unger – were essential to that success. Down that stretch, Duplessis had a 0.932 SV% in nine games while Unger had a slightly better 0.941 SV% in 12 games. The two of them will play considerable roles in whatever success the Wolverines have in the playoffs.
Waiting for the Wolverines down the hall is the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, who have a very familiar face on the bench. Gord Thibodeau returned to Northern Alberta in mid-January after previously spending 11 years with the Oil Barons from 2003 to 2014. Thibodeau spent three years in Whitecourt (2016-2019) and took them to their first AJHL finals in 2017, where they lost 4-0 to the Brooks Bandits. The Thibodeau effect has already begun in Fort McMurray, where they struggled for the vast majority of the season. However, heading into the post-season, the team went 4-5-1 and managed to climb above the Storm into sixth. Their new abilities behind the bench could play a massive role during their post-season run.
Throughout the regular season, the results were one-sided when these two went head-to-head. With that being said, the final scores were always close with only two of the six being dominated by the Wolverines. The Oil Barons came close to snapping two points away from the Wolverines on Jan 21, however, Cassidy Bowes (University of Connecticut) sent Whitecourt home with maximum points after scoring the game-winner 54 seconds into overtime.
(#4) Bonnyville Pontiacs 33-21-4 vs (#5) Drayton Valley Thunder 26-25-7
- Sept 20: Thunder 2-7 Pontiacs (RJ Lalonde Arena)
- Sept 21: Thunder 2-1 Pontiacs (RJ Lalonde Arena)
- Dec 13: Thunder 1-5 Pontiacs (RJ Lalonde Arena)
- Jan 3: Pontiacs 3-6 Thunder (Drayton Valley Omniplex)
- Jan 4: Pontiacs 4-2 Thunder (Drayton Valley Omniplex)
- Feb 17: Pontiacs 3-1 Thunder (Drayton Valley Omniplex)
Fans got a glimpse at this playoff match-up back on Feb 17. The Bonnyville Pontiacs came out 3-1 winners over the Thunder after scoring three unanswered goals from Matthew McKim (University of Alaska-Fairbanks) and a pair from Thomas Kramer. The majority of their contest resulted in Pontiacs wins with Coach Rick Swan?s men coming away with two points on four occasions.
Recently, Bonnyville started to pick up some momentum picking up three wins in a row with a pair coming against the Storm and one against the Thunder. Their two wins against Grande Prairie were without Lucas Thorne (College of Holy Cross) who was suspended for two games. Thorne had a career season scoring 81 points (30 goals, 51 assists) in 53 games and was a League MVP finalist. He played alongside Daine Dubois and Matthew McKim (University of Alaska-Fairbanks) for the majority of the year. The three of them were regarded as one of the most dangerous lines in the AJHL throughout the regular season and combined for 152 points.
Their opponents, the Drayton Valley Thunder, didn?t quite have that same offensive output finishing tenth in goals; however, Eric Ward was outstanding between the pipes. The first-year goaltender posted a 2.92 GAA along with a 0.906 SV%, giving the Thunder a fighting chance every night. Physicality also plays a big role in the Thunder?s game, which is perfect for playoff hockey. That style of play will benefit Drayton Valley and could help them make it by the first round for the first time since 2012.
By Liam Horrobin