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We’re heading into the third weekend of 2018, and with no games being played on Thursday, AJHL fans will have a jam-packed weekend of Junior A action with 16 games on the schedule. All 16 teams now have less than 20 games left making every game until the end of the season extremely vital. The top couple of teams in both divisions have pulled themselves away from the pack, leaving every other team fighting for playoff seeding.
In the North, it's a two-horse race at the top between the Spruce Grove Saints and the Fort McMurray Oil Barons. The Saints currently hold a two-point lead over the Oil Barons, they’ll be looking to widen that gap when they take on the Drayton Valley Thunder - a team they’ve taken maximum points from so far this season - in back-to-back games. However, the Oil Barons do have the games in hand advantage having only played 40 times compared to the Saints’ 43. Last season North Division finalist will be welcoming a couple of tough South Division opponents to the Casman Centre. First up will be the current AJHL Champions: the Brooks Bandits. They’ve been red-hot lately, losing only once in their past six games - that loss came to division leaders the Okotoks Oilers. On Saturday, the Oil Barons’ will be up against the Camrose Kodiaks. In their six games in January, they have taken away at least a point from each game and now sit fifth in the South, trailing the Dragons by only four points. Both of these Southern teams will also travel to Bonnyville to take on the Pontiacs.
In pursuit of both the Oil Barons and Saints are the current North Division Champions: the Whitecourt Wolverines. Heading into the weekend, Whitecourt has a 15 point cushion over the Sherwood Park Crusaders in fourth. They’ll be playing games two and three of a five-game homestand against the Lloydminster Bobcats - a team they’ve struggled against this season, losing two out of three meetings - and the Calgary Mustangs coming to town. A couple of wins this weekend, along with a loss or two from the Saints and Barons, could narrow the seven-point gap between themselves and second; bringing them back into the race for that first round bye.
As for the Bobcats and Mustangs, the two of them will face-off against the offensive juggernauts, the Grande Prairie Storm. Right now, Lloydminster is in a race with the Bonnyville Pontiacs for the sixth seed in the North. They currently trail the Pontiacs by a single point and have played one extra game. The Bobcats haven’t played a game since last Saturday night against the Calgary Mustangs when they grabbed their 16th victory of the season. That game also marked the Mustangs fourth loss in a row which was quickly followed up with a fifth on Tuesday night against the Okotoks Oilers. Not a hot start to 2018 for the up and coming Stangs’. Despite their recent slump, they are still in a tight race for third in the South and trail the Dragons by only three points.
Staying at the top of the South, the red-hot Oilers are at home with the other Calgarian team, the Canucks, and the Drumheller Dragons coming to visit. Okotoks have not had any issues to start out 2018 or the whole season for that matter; averaging five goals for in their previous five games whilst only conceding an average of two goals, plus, they’re currently riding a six-game win streak.
The Oilers first opponents, the Calgary Canucks will be playing host to the traveling Sherwood Park Crusaders on Saturday. This will mark the first meeting between the Canucks and Crusaders this season with the two teams battling for higher playoff seeding in their respected divisions. With their win over the Canmore Eagles on Wednesday night, Calgary climbed above the Eagles in the standings into sixth. Now, the difference between the Canucks and Kodiaks is a single win, and between only three points to catch up with the Mustangs in fourth.
Their Saturday opponents, the Sherwood Park Crusaders, finally passed the Grande Prairie Storm for fourth this past weekend after wins over the Eagles and Mustangs. They’ve been impressive lately with their only losses coming against the Fort McMurray Oil Barons since the Christmas break. Before traveling to Ken Bracko Arena, Sherwood Park will clash against the Canmore Eagles in a rematch of last Saturday’s game at the Sherwood Park Arena. A late comeback attempt last weekend may give the Eagles some momentum in this contest as they look to climb up the South Division standings. On Sunday afternoon, the Eagles wrap up the weekend of AJHL action against the Olds Grizzlys. These two teams also met last Sunday in a contest in which the two of them were looking for their first win of 2018. Canmore left Olds with two points despite the Grizzlys having a 4-1 lead after 20 minutes. Finally, before this scheduled Sunday afternoon contest, Olds will host the Drumheller Dragons at the Olds Sportsplex.
Liam Horrobin - @LiamHorrobin