Another weekend of AJHL hockey begins with a bang tonight, with one of the three on-ice matchups featuring the respective leaders of the North and South Divisions.
At 7:30 PM tonight, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (20-4-2) will host the Okotoks Oilers (23-2-1) at the Casman Centre. Both teams have shot out to strong first thirds of this season and are once again rolling, with the Oil Barons overcoming a minor stumble in November to win back to back games while the Oilers have reeled off seven games in a row. Of the three combined losses blemishing the Oilers’ near-perfect record, one of them represents a 4-2 setback to the Oil Barons back on October 13th in the Pason Centennial Arena. Tonight’s game is a chance for Okotoks to even up their season series with one of the North’s best while also setting a tone for an arduous northern road trip. From Fort McMurray, the Oilers will travel south to face the Bonnyville Pontiacs (10-12-6) on Friday night before closing out the weekend on Saturday with a visit to the Lloydminster Bobcats (9-17-2).
With three games in three days, the Oilers have one of the busiest weekends in the AJHL. After the divisional leader showdown at the Casman, the Oil Barons will remain at home and close out the weekend with a visit from the Olds Grizzlys (11-17-1). Olds is essentially following the Oilers’ roadtrip, as on Saturday evening they stop in Bonnyville to play the Pontiacs before heading back home. The visits from Olds and Okotoks are the only games on Bonnyville’s schedule this weekend, and the ‘Yaks have a 0-2-1 record combined against the Grizzlys and Oilers so far this season.
Another team playing three road games over the next three days begins their weekend tonight with the Sherwood Park Crusaders (12-13-2) facing the Grande Prairie Storm (13-11-3) at the Revolution Arena for a pair of games. The Crusaders and Storm have been treading the .500 mark over their last 10 games, with respective 5-4-1 and 4-6-0 records. However, it’s the Crusaders who come in with the hot hand as they’re looking to add to a three game win streak and the Storm’s five game losing streak. The two games could also be some high scoring affairs, as the teams combine for 200 goals for and 192 goals against on the season. After their two games against the Storm, the Cru stay on the road to take on another tough North Division opponent in the Whitecourt Wolverines (19-7-3) on Saturday night. The Wolverines and the Crusaders have already clashed five times this year, with Sherwood Park losing all of the previous meetings. For the Storm, their two home dates against the Crusaders represent their only action this weekend.
Rounding out tonight’s festivities is the start of a home and home series between the Brooks Bandits (17-10-1) and the Calgary Canucks (13-14-1) at the Ken Bracko Arena in Max Bell Centre. While the teams have some separation in the standings, the Canucks look to gain some ground on Brooks while riding a three game win streak into tonight - making them the second-hottest team in the South Division. With some recent success, home ice remains a bit of a hurdle for the Canucks with a 6-9 record, joining the Camrose Kodiaks (8-13-6) as the only South Division teams with a losing record on home ice. As for the Bandits, they snapped out of a three game losing streak in a big way, pummeling the Calgary Mustangs (14-15-2) on Saturday 5-1. The Bandits, as they’ve demonstrated in recent memory, can never be counted out and likely relish the opportunity to remind the AJHL why they are the current back-to-back league champions. Both teams will have a breather tomorrow before round two of the home and home Saturday night at the Centennial Regional Arena in Brooks.
Another rivalry matchup over the weekend pits the Kodiaks against the Canmore Eagles (12-15-1) with both games taking place at the Canmore Recreation Centre. Despite being division rivals, the games mark the first two meetings of the year between the pair. With 22 points on the season, the Kodiaks trail the Eagles by just three points and a weekend sweep in regulation wouldn’t only pull them ahead of Canmore in the standings - it would pull them out of last place in the AJHL South. Both teams had an up and down November in which they were unable to win more than two games in a row. Tomorrow marks a new month and it could be a fresh start for one of these teams as they look to finish strong as we march towards the holiday break.
Back in the North, the Drayton Valley Thunder (6-23-0) remain posted at the bottom of the division and eight points back of a playoff spot but get the opportunity to measure themselves against some of the division’s best this weekend. On Friday, the Thunder will host the Whitecourt Wolverines, a team which has worked them through three games this season, outscoring Drayton Valley 12-2 in those meetings. It doesn’t get any easier on Saturday, when the Thunder host the Spruce Grove Saints (20-5-2) in what will be the first game between the two since former Saints associate coach Ryan Rechner accepted the Thunder head coaching job earlier this month. Since he was named the bench boss in Drayton Valley, Rechner has posted a 3-5 record with the Thunder. Before the Saints head to Drayton Valley, they will be on the road Friday night playing the Lloydminster Bobcats. The Saints went 8-1-1 in November, with one of those losses being a 2-1 overtime setback to the Bobcats just over a week ago.
Finally, two teams play just a single game this weekend - and it’s against each other. On Friday night, the Drumheller Dragons (16-11-2) take on the Calgary Mustangs (14-15-2) at home. The Dragons are just two points behind Brooks for second in the South while the Mustangs have been on a win one, lose one streak for their last six games.
Also of note this weekend, several teams will be without key contributors as the Team Canada West Selection Camp for the upcoming World Junior A Challenge is held in Calgary. Here are the teams who will be missing some key cogs in their machine:
Spruce Grove Saints
-Tom Strangward @TheOneNDTom