Photo - Robert Murray:
All we need now is for the puck to drop!
(1) Fort McMurray Oil Barons vs. (2) Whitecourt Wolverines
It’s been 26 days since the Fort McMurray Oil Barons and Whitecourt Wolverines met in a must-win game, but the hockey gods have graciously provided AJHL fans with another battle between the two top teams in the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s North Division.
It was back on March 5 that the MOB took a win in the final game of the regular season to finish first and while the loss may have been discouraging at the time for the Wolverines, both teams find themselves no worse for wear as the final all-North Division battles the season commence.
The Barons had the advantage of a first round bye and turned that preparation time into a five-game series win over the Bonnyville Pontiacs. The Wolverines of course breezed by Grande Prairie Storm before getting the fight of their life from the Spruce Grove Saints in a series that went the full distance.
Rust seemed to play a bit of a factor into the first game of the MOB’s semifinal, where they came out strong and then seemed to just stick around for the remainder of a double overtime loss. They responded to that defeat immediately though, rallying for four straight wins to take the series, including exploding for a four-goal second period in the fifth game against the Pontiacs to take the wind out of their opponents sails.
That’ll be tougher to do against the Wolverines. Whitecourt may not have had much rest after a gruelling seven-game fight, but they’ll be ready for what the MOB have to offer. Even though the MOB won four of the games in the season series, all meetings seemed tight. Four were decided by a single goal, including two overtime victories (one for each team in their opponents building naturally). The Wolverines’ 3-1 win in the first regular season meeting featured an empty-net goal to seal the game for Whitecourt.
It seems fitting then for two teams coached by Tom Keca and Gord Thibodeau, that they are well-balanced. The Wolverines scored more goals in the regular season while the Barons allowed fewer goals overall.
A total of 14 goals were scored at the Scott Safety Centre in the three regular season meetings, with both teams each scoring seven goals. At the Casman Centre, the Barons scored 10 goals to the Wolverines’ seven.
Barring a major injury to a key player or massive swing in momentum, neither team is going to waltz through this series in four games. Even if there is a series sweep, the team that emerges to face the South Division champion will have every limit of their character tested.
The season series produced few surprises in terms of offensive scoring for both clubs. Ryan Cox led both teams with five goals in the series, though his teammate Shane Fraser out-produced all players, tallying a goal and six assists in the season series.
Whitecourt was one of four teams Cox had multi-goal efforts throughout the entire season series, though the Wolverines accounted for the team he scored against the most. There had been some questions about his status after sitting out the last four games of the MOB’s series against the Pontiacs, though Keca confirmed this week he’d be in the lineup for Friday’s series opener.
Brandon Ralph and Curtis Roach each finished with six points in the season series while Jack Hamly and Taner Miller each had five points in the six-game series.
For the Wolverines, Mitch Lipon led the way with two goals and five points throughout the season series. Joseph Nardi and Nick Quillan each had a goal and four points. Four other Wolverines picked up a pair of goals and an assist in the season series.
The Wolverines still dominate the playoff scoring leaderboard with four of the top six spots belonging to their players. Nardi leads the league with 16 points while Young sits second with 13. Motley is fourth with 10 points and Lipon rounds out the top six with 10 points as well. Their continued production will be key to shifting the series in their favour.
Finally, the most important position of any series this deep into the post-season comes between the pipes. Eric Szudor started all six games of the season series and posting a better save percentage against the Wolverines (.932) than he had against the league on average this year (.924).
The Wolverines will counter with Pierce Diamond, who played in five of the games of the regular season series, stopping 122 of 134 shots he faced for a .910 save percentage against the MOB this season. The one game played by backup Sam-Jaxon Visscher came on the tail-end of a back-to-back.
There’s countless ways to look at this series. The MOB’s previous playoff losses in 2013 and 2016 to the Wolverines could be brought up, though it’d be comparing apples and oranges. Keca has firmly said the series is about the players and not him against his former coaching partner in Thibodeau.
Once the puck drops, the numbers could easily mean everything or nothing. The beauty of this series will see the two best teams in the North Division and numbers aside, with the strong potential to turn into a memorable series regardless of who wins.
By Robert Murray @NovaCanuck
(1) Brooks Bandits vs. (4) Okotoks Oilers
Three years ago the Bandits and Oilers met in an epic South Division Final that went seven games before Brooks was able to defeat Okotoks. Two years ago the two teams met in the second round with the Bandits sweeping the Oilers to advance to the South Finals.
For one of these teams, their perfect playoff record will come to a close on Friday night. Brooks (got a bye in round 1) swept their second round series against Olds while Okotoks swept Camrose in round one and the Canucks in Round Two.
It was an interesting regular season series between the two teams as Okotoks took the first two games by 2-1 scores (second game in OT). From there it was all Brooks, as they would win the next four games with one of those going to overtime.
Goaltending was the story of the regular season. Brooks goaltenders Alex Horawski went 1-1 with a 2.01 GAA and 0.902 save percentage while teammate Mitchel Benson was 3-0 with a 0.99 GAA and 0.958 save percentage and one shutout. In the other crease, Riley Morris started all six games against the Bandits posting a 2-3-1 record with a 1.98 GAA and 0.948 save percentage.
With that kind of goaltending numbers its no wonder that offense was for the most part difficult to come by. Cale Makar (2g, 5a) and Tyrell Mappin (7a) each had seven points against Okotoks. Parker Foo was third on the team with three goals and six points. For the Oilers, Carson Beers led the team with five points (1g, 4a) in six games against the Bandits. Tanner Laderoute had two goals and a helper for three points. Jordan Davies, Braden Nesbitt and Carter Huber each had two points.
The Oilers can win the series if they can keep the high powered Brooks offense in check and control the puck. The Bandits can win the series if they continue to play as they have all season long.
Story by Chris Colwell @Cjcolwell