Viterra AJHL North Division Semi-Finals Preview

Photo: Pro Sports Photography:

Following Grande Prairie's 6-1 victory over the Sherwood Park Crusaders last night, the first round is officially over. Second round action gets going this Friday with the Spruce Grove Saints returning to action against the Grande Prairie Storm. On the same night, Fort McMurray will host the Whitecourt Wolverines.

Fort McMurray Oil Barons (2) vs Whitecourt Wolverines (3)

After both sweeping their first round opponents – the Lloydminster Bobcats and Bonnyville Pontiacs – once again, the Oil Barons and Wolverines will meet in the post-season. Whitecourt has come out victorious in their previous playoff series, taking the first round series 3-0 back in 2016 and then winning 4-2 last season in the North Division final.

However, despite the Wolverines getting the better of the MOB in the post-season, Fort McMurray took the season series with four victories against the North Division Champs including back-to-back wins to finish off the regular season. Holy Cross commit and Oil Barons forward Will Conley led the way for both teams with 10 points, and was also named the Viterra Player of the Game twice. For the Wolverines, Tyr Thompson put together a good season against the Barons; scoring seven points against them and received the Viterra Player of the Game award on October 27th when his team took down Fort McMurray 4-1.

Statistically, these two playoff foes are very evenly matched. After 60 regular season games, the Oil Barons wrapped up their 2018 campaign with the seventh best powerplay at a 19.35% success rate. The Wolverines were right behind them in eighth at 19.20%. With that being said, Fort Mac struggled to get their powerplay rolling in round one, after only scoring twice on 15 attempts. The same couldn't be said about the Wolverines who dominated the Bobcats on the odd-man advantage scoring at a rate of 26%.

As for the penalty kill, the North Champs have the fourth best at 84% and the Oil Barons sit in sixth at 83.47%. However, in their first-round series against the Pontiacs, Fort McMurray shutdown their powerplay allowing only a single goal on 14 kills. This was an impressive display by the MOB who was going up against the sixth-ranked powerplay in the regular season. Whitecourt also did a nice job on their own penalty kill allowing the Bobcats to score only twice.

Either way, no matter what the season series was or how they've performed in previous playoff series, this is going to be a fantastic series against two great organizations. It's hard to judge which team will have the edge in this series.

Spruce Grove Saints (1) vs Grande Prairie Storm (4)

After a well deserved week of rest, the Spruce Grove Saints will spring back into action against the Grande Prairie Storm. The Storm are back in the second round for the first time since 2010 – when they were eliminated in the five games by the Fort McMurray Oil Barons. Spruce Grove will enter the second round as the number one seed for the ninth time in their past 11 seasons.

The Storm struggled against the Saints this year, however, they were able to grab a victory against them back on January 5th at the Grant Fuhr Arena. That night, Justin Bernier grabbed his first AJHL hat-trick whilst Dallas Comeau and Edouard Michaud both recorded multi-point nights. The other five occasions didn’t go quite as planned for the Storm. Spruce Grove outscored them 26 to 15 on route to winning the season series. They were led by 50-goal man Chris Van Os-Shaw who scored 12 points in the series and received the Viterra Player of the Game award on three occasions. Grande Prairie’s forwards also had their fair share of offence with Michaud scoring 12 points, Comeau scoring 11, and Bernier scoring nine.

One of the biggest x-factors in this series will be who’s between the pipes for the Saints. Nolan Kent only played in one of their six contest this season. In that game, Kent stopped 17 of the Storms’ 19 shots on the road to his 14th victory on the year. Yes, the Saints were still able to win four games without Kent, however, the games were very close with only one of them not being decided by one goal or an empty net.

Spruce Grove also holds the advantage on special teams with the number one powerplay and number one penalty kill. The Storm sit in the middle of the pack on the penalty kill with an 81.98 kill percentage. On the powerplay, they aren’t too far behind the Saints in fourth.

This series could see plenty of offense with six of the league's top-20 scorers taking part. With that being said, goaltending could also prove to be the biggest factor. Ethan Slobodzian performed well for Storm against the Crusaders in the first round. The rookie was able to post a 2.68 GAA and 0.929 save percentage against a very good Crusaders offense. At the other end of the ice, as previously mentioned, Kent performed well in his lone apperance against the Storm this year. The second-year goaltender only played in 20 games, due to injury, and posted some very impressive numbers finishing the year with 1.52 GAA and a 0.934 save percentage.

Spruce Grove seems to have the advantage in many categories but counting out Grande Prairie would be a mistake. They simply have too much firepower to be written off.

By Liam Horrobin @LiamHorrobin