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Alberta’s economic downturn has been well documented over the past few years, but the AJHL’s Okotoks Oilers appear to be recession proof to begin the 2017-2018 AJHL season - in Okotoks, business is booming.
As the league’s only undefeated team at 7-0-0, the Oilers will have to channel their inner road warrior if they hope to remain undefeated. Their pair of divisional matchups begin in nearby Calgary, when they Oilers meet the Canucks at the Ken Bracko Arena in the Max Bell Centre on Friday night. After being the most improved team last season, the Canucks have gotten mixed results to start this season, currently at 3-5-0 which currently has them tied for last in the Viterra AJHL South Division with the Olds Grizzlys, also 3-5-0. The Oilers will prove a tough challenge, as their depth has been shown off during their seven game winning streak while forward Kyle Gordon leads the team in scoring with 11 points in seven games. Carter Huber is also on a four game goal scoring streak and Kylor Wall brings a six game point streak to Calgary. Should the Oilers pick up their 8th win in a row to start the season, they’ll go for number nine in Camrose against the Kodiaks on Saturday, while the Canucks will head west to face the 4-5-0 Canmore Eagles. Currently, Calgary forward Dylan Williamson is the hottest player in the league with points in all eight Canucks games this season.
When the Eagles welcome the Canucks to the Canmore Recreation Centre on Saturday night, it will be their second game against a Calgary team on the weekend. On Friday, the Calgary Mustangs (4-5-0) are in town and the meeting is the only game of the weekend for the ‘Stangs. Just a game under .500 is a pretty ideal start for the Mustangs compared to some tough recent seasons, and at the start of October their current four wins are already half of their total from all of last season. The game is an opportunity for the Mustangs to get some revenge, Canmore took both games in a season opening home-and-home set last month, with the Eagles outscoring Calgary 7-3 in the two contests.
While their divisional opponents are busy posturing in the standings down south, the Brooks Bandits (4-4-0) will look to improve their own position with a pair of games in the North. On Friday, the Bandits will take on the Drayton Valley Thunder (1-6-0). A date with the Thunder may just be what the Bandits need as they reel from a 4-1 loss against the Calgary Mustangs on Tuesday. It’s been a rough start to the year for Drayton Valley, as they’ve allowed a league-high 42 goals against while responding with just 16 goals of their own. Brooks will then head just east of Edmonton to meet the Sherwood Park Crusaders, who at 5-2-1 are in the mix atop the Viterra AJHL North. Of their four wins this season, the Bandits have earned two of them in the shootout.
Before a rare visit from Brooks, the Crusaders will be on the road on Friday to take on the Whitecourt Wolverines (5-2-2) in a game which could potentially see the winner sit atop the division. The Crusaders enter the Scott Safety Centre with a tough loss as their most recent memory as they fell to the Bonnyville Pontiacs 7-2 on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Wolverines have shaken off season opening back-to-back losses against Spruce Grove to charge to the top of the North, although their nine games played is at least one more than every other team in the division. Whitecourt will round out their weekend with a Saturday evening in Grande Prairie against the Storm. The Wolverines had a strong showing at last weekend’s showcase in Camrose, picking up three of a possible four points and notching 13 goals over two games, including a double digit outburst against the host Kodiaks.
Those very same Camrose Kodiaks (4-2-2) will be starting their weekend off away from the friendly confines of the Encana Arena when they play the Olds Grizzlys (3-5-0) at the Olds Sportsplex. Like Williamson of the Canucks, Kodiak forward Ryan Hartman has picked up at least a point in all eight of his team’s games to start the year while Colson Gengenbach has buried the puck in two straight games. The two teams are actually playing the second half of an elongated home-and-home, as the two met on Tuesday in Camrose, which saw the Kodiaks hang on for a 5-4 win after building leads of 4-1 and 5-2. Five of the games nine goals were scored on special teams, including two shorthanded markers from Camrose on the same penalty kill. The Kodiaks return home on Saturday to host the Canmore Eagles, while the Grizzlys will head to the badlands to play the Drumheller Dragons who trail the South leading Oilers by a single point with a 6-2-1 start. The Dragons are also tied with the Oilers for the most offensive output across the league, with 37 goals, and boast the AJHL’s current leading scorer in Jordan Taupert who’s picked up 17 points in just nine games. The Saturday home game against Olds is the only game of the weekend for the Dragons.
The Bonnyville Pontiacs (3-5-0) also have just a single game this weekend as they travel to the Alberta/Saskatchewan border to take on the Lloydminster Bobcats on Friday. The Pontiacs have been involved in several high scoring affairs to start the year, with only three of their eight games being decided by two goals or less. In their last three games, the Pontiacs have lost by four goals twice (4-0 to the Mustangs, 7-3 to the Oilers) before earning a five goal margin of victory over the Crusaders, 7-2. Bonnyville may want to keep things close against the Bobcats, as two of their three wins have been 3-2 decisions.
The Grande Prairie Storm round out the teams who have just a single game this weekend, as they welcome the Whitecourt Wolverines on Saturday. The Storm, who edged the Lloydminster Bobcats for the last playoff spot in the North last year, have a lot to be happy with to start the season. The Storm currently possess top ranked power play and penalty kill units and forward Edouard Michaud leads the league in goals with 11.
And up Highway 63, an all-north matchup goes at the Casman Centre with the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (5-1-0) hosting the Spruce Grove Saints (5-2-1) for a pair of games. Last season, the resurgent Oil Barons captured the North division, ending the Saints’ eight straight years of division championships. The two games will mark the first meetings of the year between the two, and if last year’s contests were any indication they will be tight, physical, blue collar hockey games.
-Tom Strangward @TheOneNDTom