Photo - Melissa Baker Photography:
The two second-round North Division series have been the tale of two entirely different stories.
The first series we’ll take a look at is between the Spruce Grove Saints and the Grande Prairie Storm. It took the Saints the minimum time required to finish off the Storm, sweeping them 4-0 in their best of seven series. Spruce Grove outscored Grande Prairie 28 to 2 across the four games, which was extremely surprising to see. Grande Prairie isn’t known much for being a defensive team - finishing with third most goals against in the North - they are known for being an offensive threat to any team they play. In their first-round series against the Sherwood Park Crusaders, their top players - Edouard Michaud, Justin Bernier, Dallas Comeau, Zachary Okabe, and Connor Blake - combined for an impressive 35 points in that five-game series. However, against the Saints, they didn’t come even close to matching that total after only scoring two points between the five of them. That stat shows how dominant the Saints were in the four games. They limited the Storm to an average of 18 shots per game while averaging 46 shots themselves. Nolan Kent had a fantastic series with three shutouts, a 0.50 GAA, and a 0.973 save percentage. They also showed off how deep their lineup is with each player scoring at least one point. Whoever comes up against the Saints in the North Division Finals will have a tough task ahead of them.
Flipping over to the other series that is still going on, the Whitecourt Wolverines have a 3-1 series lead over the Fort McMurray Oil Barons. This has been a much more competitive series with two of the five games so far going to overtime.
After both teams swept their opponents in the opening round, the two meet for game one at the Casman Centre in Fort McMurray. The Oil Barons special teams got them off to a hot start with two goals early in the second period. First, Taner Miller scored his second goal of the playoffs just 26 seconds into the frame; his goal was quickly followed by a shorthanded one from Barons captain Shane Fraser. Whitecourt did pull within one before the period was over when Jake Hobson blasted one home from the point. Similarly to the second period, Fort McMurray came out hard to start and scored just over five minutes in from Reed Morison, giving them a two-goal lead, again. The defending North Division champs found themselves in a deep hole with not much hockey left to play. However, the Wolverines did not surrender and with 9:27 remaining Spencer Bast scored his first career AJHL goal to pull his team within one. Then in dramatic playoff fashion, Whitecourt would tie the game up with just over a minute to play when Ben Evanish setup Liam Motley to send the game to overtime. In the extra frame, Whitecourt’s comeback attempt fell short six minutes in when Jordan Ray snapped home the Oil Barons fourth to become the game one hero and gave his team a 1-0 series lead.
The tight competitiveness of game one rolled over into game two, this time in favour of the Wolverines. Rookie forward Hayden Clayton, not known as a goalscoring threat, opened up the scoring with 20 seconds left in the first period after knocking home a Chase Haygarth rebound. The Sylvan Lake native got another taste of playoff scoring when he added his, and the Wolverines, second of the game at the 17-minute mark of the second. Despite being down 2-0, a rejuvenated Oil Barons team came out to the play in the third period. They managed to flip the momentum back in their favour and by the 4:21 mark they’d tied the game up with goals from Jarred White and Reed Morison. Whitecourt then sucked the life back out of the Casman Centre just 45 seconds later when Ben Evanish gave them the lead, again. However, much like game one, this game was not over. With only 20 seconds left on the clock, Morison buried his second of the night to send the game to overtime second consecutive night. Then in overtime, at almost the exact time as the night before, Yannick Bertrand gave his team a 4-3 victory and tied series up at 1-1 heading into game three at the Scott Safety Centre.
The opening two games of this series showed fans how close these two teams are. Both sides scored seven goals, both teams scored late in regulation to send games to overtime, and both netminders did an excellent job between the pipes. A fantastic way to open up this series.
However, despite how close games one and two were in Fort McMurray, the Wolverines took full advantage of being back on home ice.
Game three saw the two teams locked at 2-2 after the first 20 minutes of play. Chase Haygarth opened up the scoring for the Wolverines, but their lead was soon evaporated with goals from Will Conley and Nicholas Leeseberg who both scored their first goals of the series. Then the Ohio state commit, Jaedon Leslie, tied the game up at two on the powerplay with six minutes remaining. After a scoreless second frame, Whitecourt came out flying in the third scoring three goals giving the Oil Barons no chance of coming back in this one. The final score in game three saw the Wolverines win 5-2 giving them their first lead of the series.
The next night, the Oil Barons were without forward Merritt Oszytko. Oszytko was handed a one-game suspension by the league as a result of being assessed a Game Misconduct for Abuse of an Official. The Barons forward had two points in the three games. Two first period goals from Ben Evanish, the teams leading goalscorer, were all it took to give the Wolverines a 3-1 series lead heading into game five in Fort McMurray on Friday night.
With the Oil Barons on the brink of elimination, a major key for them to win is to have their top forwards rolling. The Wolverines have done a great job of shutting down players like Will Conley who had 48 goals in the regular season, but has just one in this series. You can also add Coy Prevost and Shane Fraser to that list. The two of them had strong regular season campaigns, but have struggled in the four games so far. The lack of production has also affected their powerplay, which has gone 1 for 17 in round two. Fort McMurray has the talent to take this series to seven and win; they just need to show up.
As for the Wolverines, Xavier Potvin was hot in games three and four making 59 saves. His team did an excellent job of giving him some goal support too. Their big names stepped it up when they need them with Jaedon Leslie scoring two goals in game three and Ben Evanish scoring twice in game four. The Wolverines are on a roll heading into game five and with a big victory will look to carry momentum into the North Division finals against the Spruce Grove Saints.
Game Five gets underway at 7:30 PM at the Casman Centre.
By Liam Horrobin @LiamHorrobin