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With teams entering their final third of the season this week, the standings in the Viterra Alberta Junior Hockey League North and South Divisions are providing several interesting races as the season enters its final homestretch.
Starting with the league-leading Brooks Bandits (31-3-4), they’ll travel to face the Canmore Eagles (22-14-4) for the final two games in the regular season series. On their way to trying to repeat as the Gas Drive Cup champions, the Bandits have dominated the Eagles in recent years. In addition to winning all four regular season matches this year, the Bandits were undefeated in regulation against the Eagles in 23 straight games (21-0-2) including last year’s post-season meeting. The last regulation victory for the Eagles against the Bandits came on Nov. 1, 2013.
The Bandits have a nine-point lead and three games in-hand on the second place Okotoks Oilers (26-10-5), so securing four more points in the standings would obviously help. For the Eagles, who are 7-3 in their last 10 games, it would help them gain some breathing room in the tight middle of the Viterra AJHL South Division.
Ty Mappin had a six-point game Wednesday to break the 200-point plateau for his AJHL career. Matt Forchuk, who leads the Eagles offensively, is on a solid stretch of his own, scoring eight goals and 21 points in his last 11 contests.
Trying to keep ground with the Bandits will be the Oilers, who are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games and will take to the road to face the Camrose Kodiaks (22-16-3) Saturday before returning to the comfy confines of the Pason Centennial Arena Sunday to host the Drumheller Dragons (18-18-4).
Contributions haven’t been hard to come by for the Oilers, who have thrived under the guidance of Tyler Deis. 1997-born goaltender Riley Morris is one win away from his 50th career AJHL victory. Trey DeGraaf scored his 50th career AJHL goal in his first game of 2017 and enters the weekend with points in five of his last six games.
The Oilers have won three of the four meetings against the Kodiaks this year, but Sunday’s contest should prove to be an interesting one. The Oilers won the first game of the season series against the Dragons, but have since dropped the last two meetings, with both of them coming in the first two weeks of 2017.
For the Kodiaks, their weekend will consist of homes games against two tough clubs. The Viterra AJHL North Division-leading Whitecourt Wolverines (27-10-4) visit the Encana Arena Friday before the Oilers pay a visit Saturday night.
The Kodiaks are 13-6-1 at home this year, and 7-2-1 in their last 10 home games, but don’t have the same feel of last year’s team that finished with 80 points and went to the South Division final. If they maintain their current pace, they’ll finish just shy of 70 points, which could make any home-ice situation in the playoffs complicated.
For the visiting Wolverines, they’ll be trying to fend off a trio of challengers for the top spot in the North Division. Four points separate first and fourth place. A loss to the Grande Prairie Storm (11-27-6) Wednesday didn’t do the Wolverines any favours in the standings, making this weekend’s road trip to face the Kodiaks Friday and the Olds Grizzlys (12-23-5) all that more important.
Justin Young has helped lead the Wolverines with seven multi-point games in his last nine contests. That has translated to seven goals and 18 points in those nine games. Goaltender Pierce Diamond is tied for first in the league with four shutouts.
The Grizzlys are at home to face a pair of North Division opponents this weekend. Up first are the Drayton Valley Thunder (9-28-4) Friday followed by the Wolverines on Saturday. For their record, the Grizzlys actually began the year on a hot streak against the North Division, going 3-0-1 before losing four straight. Overall, the Grizzlys are 4-6-1 against the North Division this year. Jared Power has been a strong addition to the Grizzlys, scoring 12 goals and totaling 16 points in 16 games since coming over from the Bonnyville Pontiacs in a trade.
Closely following the Wolverines are the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (28-10-4). A four-game winning streak has vaulted the MOB back into second place and consideration for the top team in the North Division. This weekend, the MOB play a pair of interdivisional matches, hosting the Calgary Mustangs (6-32-2) Friday and Calgary Canucks (26-12-2) Saturday.
Though they’ll be without leading scorer Ryan Cox, who will begin serving a four-game suspension Friday, the MOB have quickly shaken off a mediocre stretch of play heading into the holiday break and are looking like a refreshed team ready to make a deep run into the playoffs.
That mentality will be tested at both ends of the spectrum this weekend as the Barons try to overcome their close call against the Mustangs in their last meeting. The wounds of a 6-0 loss at the hands of the Canucks are still fresh and also on the mind of the team.
A cool quirky stat still gives the Barons a chance to finish with 20 wins at home and 20 wins on the road, a feat only eight teams have accomplished in the previous two seasons. The last time the MOB accomplished that feat was in the 2011-12 season, when they went all the way to the league final.
Also chomping at the top of the North Division are the Spruce Gove Saints (27-11-2), who sit at a respectable 56 points entering the weekend. The Saints are at home this weekend, hosting the Dragons Friday before a Sunday duel against the Lloydminster Bobcats (9-27-2).
The Saints have the second-best winning percentage in the North Division with a .722 figure at the Grant Fuhr Arena, second only to the Wolverines’ .772 figure at the Scott Safety Centre. Scoring continues to come by committee for the Saints, who don’t have a single player producing more than a point per game. Four players have already reach double-digit goals this year and three more sit at nine for the season.
For their Friday night opponents from Drumheller, turning their focus to the road could prove to be the spark the Dragons need to climb into the thick of the South Division race. With 40 points, the Dragons are firmly locked into sixth place in the division, 11 points up on the Grizzlys, and seven points back of the Kodiaks. A 6-7-3 record on the road is likely not how they intended to play the first half of their road battles, but with three quarters of their remaining games on the road, turning that weakness into a strength will go a long way to determining how deep they play into March.
Shifting back to the North Division, the Bonnyville Pontiacs (25-12-4) are sitting idle this weekend, and are in danger of falling further out of the race for first in the division. Once going neck-and-neck with the Wolverines, a 4-5-1 slide has dropped the Pontiacs to fourth in the division, just seven points ahead of the Sherwood Park Crusaders (23-16-1). The remaining games for the Pontiacs are pretty much split down the middle, with 10 at home and nine on the road. The Pontiacs and Cru meet four more times this year, including a match up this coming Wednesday in Sherwood Park.
This weekend though, the Cru will be concerned with facing both Calgary teams, hosting the Canucks Friday before a Saturday clash against the Mustangs. With a 7-3 record in their last 10 games, the Cru are improving their prospects with each passing week, fighting to join the division’s top four teams in a race to the end of the regular season.
Consistency is still an area of concern for the Cru, who have been dealt lopsided losses at the hands of teams like the Bandits and Wolverines.
Making their way through the North Division this weekend, the Canucks will attempt to slip back into second place in the South Division. They’ve done their part so far to begin 2017, winning all three games this calendar year and allowing just two goals over their past four games. Logan Drackett has a ridiculous .977 save % in those four games.
The Canucks will need to be careful about Drackett’s workload. The 1998-born Calgary native recently surpassed the 4000-minute played mark, though he’s yet to show any ill effects of the dependent on his services, leading the league in wins.
For the Mustangs, a four-game home stand to begin 2017 couldn’t help alleviate any of the team’s woes as they lost all four games, averaging 1.25 goals for per game and giving up 6.25 goals at their end of the rink.
Walking into two tough North Division rinks this weekend isn’t likely part of the recipe for success, but stranger things have happened in league play so they should never be fully counted out. Defenceman Kylor Wall continues to have a career year despite being held off the score sheet in his last four games. The blue liner has eight goals and 23 points this year.
As tight as the top of the North Division is, the bottom three teams are also forming an interesting end to the regular season. Eight points in the standings with two playoff spots available separate the Storm, Thunder and Bobcats. In the hockey-equivalent of musical chairs, all three teams have had flashes of success this year, but appear to have early playoff exits marked on their seasons already due to inconsistent play and a lack of offence.
The Storm’s only game of the weekend comes at home against the Bobcats Friday. The Bobcats won the first two meetings of the season series by 3-2 scores before dropping a 3-0 result to the Storm in their last meeting on Dec. 10, 2016. Leading the Storm is Michael Clarke, who is one game shy of 150 for his AJHL career, one goal shy of 50 for his AJHL career and seven points shy of 100 career AJHL points. The Medicine Hat native is the only member of the Storm playing at a point per game pace this year.
Working in the Bobcats’ favour is games played. Sitting two points behind the Thunder, the Bobcats have three games in-hand on Drayton Valley. They also sit just eight points back of the Storm with six games in-hand. Taking advantage of that stat will be another question for the Bobcats, who are just one of three teams who have yet to reach the 10-win mark this year. The Bobcats have scored the fewest goals in the league with just 76 goals through nearly two-thirds of their season.
After their game in Grande Prairie, the Bobcats will make a pit stop in Drayton Valley Saturday night before stopping in Spruce Grove for a Sunday afternoon date. Wins by Lloydminster on Friday and Saturday would vault them into a playoff spot.
Last, but certainly not least, the Thunder will try to avoid falling out of a playoff spot this weekend when they travel to face the Grizzlys before returning home for Saturday’s date with the Bobcats. A 2-8 stretch in their past 10 games hasn’t helped their situation. December marked a winless month at home for the Thunder, who have lost six straight at the Drayton Valley Omniplex and had their last home victory come in the shootout. On the road, a 1-11-2 start for the Thunder was less than ideal, though a 3-7 record in their last 10 road contests has sparked the team a bit.