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The South Division Final is due to get underway this Friday night with the top ranked CJHL team in the country, the Okotoks Oilers, playing host to the defending AJHL champions, the Brooks Bandits.
These two south rivals have a history of meeting in the playoffs. This will be their fourth post-season meeting in the past six years with the most recent encounter coming last season when they collided, again, in the South Division Final. The Bandits took that series 4-1. However, these are two entirely different teams compared to the ones that have met in the past.
Game One: Fri, March 30th - Brooks Bandits @ Okotoks Oilers - 7:00 PM
Game Two: Sat, March 31st - Brooks Bandits @ Okotoks Oilers - 7:00 PM
Game Three: Mon, April 2nd - Okotoks Oilers @ Brooks Bandits - 7:00 PM
Game Four: Tues, April 3rd - Okotoks Oilers @ Brooks Bandits - 7:00 PM
Game Five: Fri, April 6th - Brooks Bandits @ Okotoks Oilers - 7:00 PM*
Game Six: Sun, April 8th - Okotoks Oilers @ Brooks Bandits - 7:00 PM*
Game Seven: Tues, April 10th Brooks Bandits @ Okotoks Oilers - 7:00 PM*
Regular Season Series
During their 2017-18 campaigns, the Oilers and Bandits faced off against each other on six occasions with five of their matchups coming in the earlier portion of their schedules. Their most recent contest came on January 5th when Okotoks defeated Brooks 4-2 at the Pason Centennial Arena. That victory also completed the season sweep for the Oilers. Brooks was able to take them to overtime once, but a game-winning goal from Austin Wong with 13 seconds left prevented the Bandits from snatching two points from the league leaders.
Wong has been dominant against the league champions all season long, and in six games he scored eight points, collected a Viterra Player of the Game award, and as previously mentioned, an overtime game-winning goal. Between the pipes, both Riley Morris and Ben Howard were outstanding for the Oilers. In the six games, the two combined for a 0.94 save percentage and a 1.83 GAA while also getting the victory every time.
As for the Bandits, their usually dominant offence came up dry scoring only 11 goals in the season series. When you compare that to the other six South Division teams they played, they averaged over four goals for per game. Team MVP, Mitch Benson, also struggled statistically posting a 0.85 save percentage and a 4.17 GAA vs Okotoks. However, since January 6th, not including playoffs, the Colgate commit has been in fine form. The second-year Bandit played in 18 games winning 16 of them, which includes one shutout and eight one-goal against games and had a 1.88 GAA along with a 0.92 save percentage. Now in the playoffs, he has continued to post excellent numbers and is heading into the series hot with a 1.56 GAA and a 0.93 save percentage in nine games. Those numbers rank him in the top four of both categories.
The Road to the Finals
After sitting out the first round, Okotoks hit the ice against the Camrose Kodiaks in the division semi-finals. Camrose was heading into the series confident following a series sweep over the Calgary Mustangs in round one. Despite being swept in four games, they did prove to be a tough test for the Oilers especially at the Encana Arena where one goal decided both games. Carter Huber stepped up in a big way for his team scoring 10 points in the series, including scoring the shorthanded game-winning goal in game two and assisting on Tanner Laderoute’s overtime series winner in game four. It should also be noted that they were without two of their best defencemen, Kylor Wall and Carson Beers, who were both suspended for game three and four for incidents which happened in game two. Both players will be available for game one of the South Division finals. With the absence of those two players, Riley Morris’ job was made a little more difficult, but of course, he was up for the challenge and wrapped up the first round with four stellar performances. In the four games, the league’s Top Goaltender recipient picked up his third career playoff shutout, and averaged 1.43 goals against while having a 0.938 save percentage.
Flipping over to their opponents, Brooks has played much more hockey than the Oilers over the past couple of weeks. Their journey began with a first-round matchup against the seventh-seeded Canmore Eagles. The defending champs took care of the Eagles in three games, scoring 15 goals and conceding only one. Round two proved to be a much more difficult task for them when they went up against the Drumheller Dragons. Brooks held a 3-0 series lead, but the Dragons refused to be slain and took the series to six games. Eventually, the Bandits proved to be too much in game six and got back to winning ways with a comfortable 6-3 victory to send them to their seventh straight South Division final. In the first two rounds, the four-time league champions have been led by Holy Cross commit Connor Jean. Jean, since missing game one against the Canmore Eagles, has scored 10 points (five goals, five assists) and scored at least a point in all six games against the Dragons. Luke Bast has also come up big for them grabbing eight assists from the backend. Brooks’ offensive depth has been on display these playoffs, so far, with each active skater having at least one playoff point to their name. In goal, as previously mentioned, Mitch Benson has been playing great hockey for the Bandits as they look to retain their AJHL title. He could prove to be the x-factor in this series.
Despite the season series being one-sided, this could turn out to be one of the best playoff series in AJHL history. We’ve got many NCAA division one commits, two of the best netminders in the league, and two of the best franchises in the country going one-on-one. Brooks has the experience factor and knows how to win in critical game situations, while Okotoks has the firepower to score at will and the confidence of a 28 game win streak under their belts. This series is going to be great, and we should all be excited about what is to come.
By Liam Horrobin @LiamHorrobin