Photo – Chad Goddard:
Here we are! The first round of the playoff has finally arrived. Six South Division teams will be involved in the first round of the playoffs including the defending AJHL champions: the Brooks Bandits. Now, let's take a look the three first-round series.
Brooks Bandits (2) vs Canmore Eagles (7)
For the first time since 2015, the Brooks Bandits will compete in the first round of the playoffs. Their opponents will come in the form of the Canmore Eagles who are entering the post-season as the seventh seed. These two South Division foes previously met in the first round back in 2011. Similarly to this year, the Bandits finished the regular season as the second seed and the Eagles the seventh. Brooks then went on to sweep that best-of-five series 3-0 and then continued on to win their first AJHL Championship.
Heading into this first round matchup, Canmore has struggled in their season series against the Bandits. They were, however, able to grab one victory against the current AJHL champions. Those two points came back in November when the Bandits made a trip to the Canmore Recreation Centre. A three-point night from Jake Ashton and Colton Young, 32 saves from Logan Dyck and also killing off all eight of Brooks’ powerplay helped get a 4-1 victory.
With that being said, the other five games between these two haven’t quite gone as planned for them. Connor Jean and the rest of the Bandits offence proved to be too much for Canmore’s defence. Brooks outscored the Eagles 23-7 across those five wins and were led by rookie forward Simon Boyko who had three goals and three assists. At the other end of the ice, team MVP Mitch Benson stood tall between the pipes posting a 0.936 save percentage and 1.83 GAA in the season series.
This could prove to be a tough order for this young Canmore Eagles side. However, as previously mentioned, they’ve been able to overcome this extremely well coached Bandits team and come out with two points. If they’re able to get a victory in game one and gain confidence from that, who knows what will happen. We saw it last year when the Eagles headed into the playoffs as the second seed but fell 3-0 to the seventh-seeded Olds Grizzlys.
As for the Bandits, they’re a very deep hockey team with top talent on the ice at all times. A few early goals could put this Eagles team to bed. They've got plenty of firepower to get the job done. It should also be noted that Brooks will be without Nic Hamre who has been suspended three games.
Drumheller Dragons (3) vs Calgary Canucks (6)
The Dragons and Canucks meet in the first round for the second consecutive year. Last season's series went to five games, with Canucks proving to be too much for Drumheller who fell 5-2 in game five. Heading into the chapter two of this series, the roles have been reversed with Drumheller now holding the home ice. They’re also coming into game one on a four-game win streak, which includes victories over top teams like the Spruce Grove Saints and Brooks Bandits. On the other side of the ice, it’s a completely different story for the Calgary Canucks. They’re currently on a seven-game losing skid and have averaged almost seven goals against per game during that spell.
The season series between these two went to the Dragons who won five out of the six matchups. Drumheller scored more goals (34) against the Canucks this season than they did against any other team. The sixth-seeded Canucks managed to get 16 passed Hunter Virostek and Dane Dow in the Dragons net.
Jordan Taupert led the way offensively for the Dragons with 74 points which helped him finish sixth in league scoring. Taupert had plenty of support from his teammates and what is a very deep Dragons lineup. Nine players, including Taupert, scored 10 or more goals for them on the season. On the back end, captain Andrew Kartusch played a big factor in the Dragons becoming a top defensive team and hit a career-high in points with 42. Netminder, Hunter Virostek finished up his second campaign in Drumheller with a career-high 26 wins. He’ll need to be in top form against this highly threatening Canucks offense.
The Canucks offense can fly when it’s rolling. They’re led by Zach Webb and Michael Clarke, two in-season acquisitions, who finished the regular season with 51 and 50 points respectively. Calgary too has a deep offensive cast. Aside from Webb and Clarke, the Dragons should be cautious of Justin Giacomin and Jaxon Steele. Giacomin played extremely well against Drumheller in their season series, scoring five points which includes four goals. Steele may have only played 20 games for the Canucks, after being brought in from the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL, but he made an immediate impact. The 2000-born forward has scored 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) in his short time with the team. However, defensively it’s not been as pleasing. Out of all the playoff teams in both the North and the South, Calgary has conceded the most goals with 256. They’re also the owners of the 4th worst penalty kill in the AJHL. Between the pipes, Kolby Matthews and Erik Gordon have been splitting time since Matthews was brought in from the Battleford North Stars in early December. Matthews finished up with a 9-6-0 record along with a 4.40 GAA and a 0.886 save percentage. As for Gordon, he closed out his campaign with a 0.875 save percentage, 4.84 GAA, and a 9-15-1 record.
The Dragons have done a great job in shutdown this high flying Canucks offence throughout the season. If they're able to do that again in this series they shouldn't have many issues.
As for the Canucks, they need to stay out of the box as often as possible. Their penalty kill isn't strong enough to maintain the Dragons powerplay, which ranks second in the AJHL. Offensively, they're good enough to beat any team in the league. Once they get rolling they could prove hard to stop.
Camrose Kodiaks (4) vs Calgary Mustangs (5)
To wrap up this preview, the final matchup we’ll take a look at is between the Camrose Kodiaks and Calgary Mustangs. This will be an intriguing series with the lower-seeded Mustangs having the advantage in their season series with a 5-1-0 record. Two of those wins did come in overtime and a shootout, however. Game one of this series will also mark the Mustangs first playoff game since 2015.
The Kodiaks have a great group of forwards, which is lead by rookie Brock Bremner. His 62 points were the most scored by a rookie in the AJHL and also helped him finish 15th in league scoring. Bremner was closely followed by second-year forward Kyler Kupka who finished 20th in league scoring with 59 points. Let's also not forget about veteran forward Ryan Hartman who played in only 33 games this season, due to injury, and still managed to pull out a point per game season. Between the pipes, Camrose has a great duo in Griffin Bowerman and Luke Lush. Bowerman, a rookie out of Calgary, will be heading into his first AJHL post-season. He posted solid numbers all year long and finished with a 12-10-2 record, 3.35 GAA, and a 0.892 save percentage. His 12 wins were the third most by a rookie in the South trailing to only Ben Howard (Okotoks Oilers) and Ashton Abel (Calgary Mustangs). The other half of the Kodiaks duo, Luke Lush, also had a good first season with them. Since joining the team in November, Lush played in 26 games picked up nine wins and had a 2.92 GAA. He also picked up one shutout which came against the Grande Prairie Storm on December 17th.
Flipping to the other side of the ice, the Calgary Mustangs are coming into this series in not so great form. They’ve only been able to take two points from a game two of their last seven games. Head Coach, Tyler Drader will look toward both Joseph Karpyshyn and Daniel Rybarik to get his team back to winning ways. The two of them led the way offensively for the Mustangs this season with Karpyshyn scoring 53 points (27 goals, 26 assists) and Rybarik 52 points (28 goals, 24 assists). Much like the Kodiaks, Calgary has depended on a rookie goaltender for good portions of the season. Ashton Abel recorded 16 wins in 33 starts along with a 0.902 save percentage.
This series could really come down to the wire. As previously mentioned, the Mustangs did take the season series 5-1-0 but two of those victories came in extra time. Camrose are no pushovers and have a very deep team. In order for them to when, they'll need veterans like Ryan Hartman, Kyler Kupka, and Matt Dykstra to lead the way against a young Mustangs blueline. As for the Mustangs, they need to take the pressure of their backend. Ashton Abel is a great goaltender but it would be asking a lot for him to stop this Kodiaks offense. Their offense needs get rolling when the puck drops in game one.
By Liam Horrobin @LiamHorrobin