It’s the final push of this year’s AJHL regular season with most teams hovering around ten games remaining on their schedule, give or take a few. The playoff picture still remains murky, with no teams mathematically eliminated and parity making for some interesting shuffling within both the North and South Divisions.
Starting with the North, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (36-10-3) have a big three games in three days road swing this weekend which could ultimately define their regular season. The Oil Barons trail the Spruce Grove Saints (38-9-3) by four points for 1st place in the division but do have a game in hand and one game left against the Saints on Family Day later this month. The game in hand will essentially be played this weekend as the MOB play the Camrose Kodiaks (19-20-11) on Friday, the Drumheller Dragons (26-20-4) on Saturday and close off with the Sherwood Park Crusaders (22-26-2) on Sunday.
Fort McMurray will obviously need to both run the table and get some help this weekend to gain ground on the Saints, which is certainly possible. The Saints will visit the Drayton Valley Thunder (12-35-3) who took the Saints to overtime in their last meeting before returning home on Saturday to host the surging Brooks Bandits (37-11-1) at the Grant Fuhr Arena. The Bandits themselves are likely cemented as the 2nd place team in the South, with not enough time (or outside help) left to catch the Okotoks Oilers (42-6-2) and too large a cushion over 3rd place Drumheller, but will want to enter the playoffs with a strong finish to the season.
The real interesting storylines in the South lie with teams three through eight, with jostling happening throughout the ranks. The Camrose Kodiaks, Calgary Canucks (24-26-1) and Calgary Mustangs (22-26-5) are all tied for 4th at 49 points with 50, 51 and 53 games played respectively. The Mustangs are idle this weekend but the Canucks and Kodiaks both play a pair of games. On Friday, the Canucks will visit the Canmore Eagles (19-30-2) who have some very serious hockey ahead of them with just a four point cushion over the Olds Grizzlys (16-32-4) for the final playoff spot after a six game slide. Meanwhile, the Kodiaks will be at home to the Oil Barons on the same night. On Saturday, the Canucks return home for a rare meeting with the Grande Prairie Storm (23-23-3) while the Kodiaks will have their crack at the Eagles as their homestand continues on Sunday. Those games will be of significant weight in the standings and could set up either Camrose or Calgary with a solid shot at home ice in the first round of the playoffs.
While the Eagles will look to end their current losing streak, the Olds Grizzlys will look to continue closing the four-point gap on Canmore, who also has a game in hand. The Grizzlys will start their gut check time weekend at home against the Drumheller Dragons. The Grizzlys have earned 12 of their 16 wins and 25 of 36 points at the Olds Sportsplex, compared to just four wins and 11 points on the road. The Grizzlys will keep the Eagles in their sights and look to improve a rough road record on Saturday in a trip to Drayton Valley against the Thunder. The matchup may be of the two bottom teams points-wise in the league, but both come into this weekend coming off wins.
Grande Prairie’s swing through the South will see them square off against the scorching hot Okotoks Oilers (42-6-2) who are currently riding a fourteen-game win streak and averaging a ridiculous 4.48 goals a game. The Storm have been a much streakier team this season than the Oilers, but have been known to generate plenty of offence of their own so this one could potentially open up into some firewagon hockey. The Storm, as aforementioned, will play the Canucks before returning home. Chasing the Storm in the North division standings are the Sherwood Park Crusaders, who have also had a late season lapse in the form of a five game skid see them drop in the standings. The Cru have a physical weekend ahead of them when the gritty Bonnyville Pontiacs (16-27-7) and Fort McMurray Oil Barons come to the Park, but could catch the Storm with a weekend sweep and some stumbles from Grande Prairie.
Staying in the North, the Whitecourt Wolverines (29-15-6) are in a similar position as the Bandits in the South- likely not enough games left to move up into 2nd but comfortably ahead of the Grande Prairie Storm who are in 4th. However, just because the mold is cast doesn’t mean the metal has set and the Wolverines still need wins to have an outside shot at 2nd and secure 3rd. Their weekend sees them trek to both Bonnyville and Lloydminster to take on the Bobcats (21-27-2) who are peaking at the right time with five straight victories.
-Tom Strangward @TheOneNDTom