(Michael Benning, Crusaders Defenceman: Photo Credit - Target Photography)
In the final weekend of the 2018-2019 AJHL Season, it’s come down to the wire for several teams as many first round playoff matchups have yet to be determined. In the North, it remains to be seen who will finish in second behind the Sherwood Park Crusaders, while in the South the Camrose Kodiaks, Calgary Mustangs and Canmore Eagles will play a game of musical chairs with 4th, 5th and 6th place still up for grabs. Buckle up – the playoffs are just around the corner.
Bonnyville Pontiacs (39-15-4, 82 points, 2nd AJHL North)
The Bonnyville Pontiacs, a juggernaut on the ice this year, enter the final weekend of the AJHL regular season looking to get back into the win column. An untimely five-game losing streak has cost the Pontiacs the North Division’s 1st seed and the 1st Round bye that comes with it and are at risk of being surpassed by the red-hot Spruce Grove Saints.
Bonnyville will look to right the ship before the post season against the 7th and 8th place teams in the North, as they’ll host the Lloydminster Bobcats on Friday and then wrestle with the Whitecourt Wolverines on Saturday night at the RJ Lalonde Arena. Two of Bonnyville’s losses during the skid have been by just a single goal, while a 3-1 loss to the Saints on Wednesday included an empty-net-goal.
Brooks Bandits (55-3-0, 110 points, 1st AJHL South)
While the North Division saw a leadership change in the last ten games of the season, no such thing occurred in the South as the Brooks Bandits have rewritten the record book. A 31-game (and counting) win streak has paced the Bandits to the first 110-point (and counting) season in AJHL history and they hope to earn another record this weekend: become the first team in league history to finish with less than 4 losses.
The Bandits will go for the record in a home and home against their arch rivals the Okotoks Oilers, who saw Brooks break their record win streak set just last season. Friday will see the two tango in Okotoks before they battle in Brooks on Saturday.
Calgary Canucks (9-48-2, 20 points, 7th AJHL South)
Courtesy of earning a point in a shootout loss to the Canmore Eagles, the Calgary Canucks have punched their ticket to the post season and clinched the final playoff berth in the AJHL South. The Canucks will look to get set for their first round playoff matchup against the Okotoks Oilers by closing out their regular season at home with the Battle of Calgary finale against the cross-town Mustangs.
The Canucks and Mustangs played a physical game on February 21st, which saw the Mustangs double up the ‘Nucks 4-2.
Calgary Mustangs (28-21-9, 65 points, 5th AJHL South)
With just two games left on their schedule, the Mustangs need to win out and get some help from elsewhere if they hope to pass the Camrose Kodiaks for 4th in the AJHL South. While the playoff matchups in the middle of the South are yet to be set, the Mustangs will likely be squaring off against the Kodiaks with home-ice still to be decided.
If the Mustangs can win their final two games (@ Canucks on Friday, @ Dragons Sunday) they will give themselves a strong shot at home-ice advantage and record 30 wins in a season for the first time since 2011-2012.
Camrose Kodiaks (31-21-6, 68 points, 4th AJHL South)
In order to secure 4th place and home ice advantage in the 1st Round of the playoffs, the Camrose Kodiaks need to pick up two points over their final two games this weekend against the Canmore Eagles. While the Eagles can’t catch the Kodiaks they can leapfrog the Mustangs for 5th (if Calgary loses out) and set up a first round match up with Camrose.
While this requires some quick mental math, one thing is easy to understand: the Friday and Saturday games between the Kodiaks and Eagles will have plenty on the line.
Canmore Eagles (29-24-5, 63 points, 6th AJHL South)
As outlined above, the Eagles will be closing out their regular season on the road with a pair of games against the Camrose Kodiaks, a team they can’t catch but a team they could play in the first round of the playoffs.
Of the logjam consisting of themselves, the Kodiaks and the Mustangs, the Eagles have gone the longest without a regulation win and would like to start the playoffs with a pair of statement victories.
Drayton Valley Thunder (23-29-6, 52 points, 6th AJHL North)
After missing out last year, the Drayton Valley Thunder will return to the playoffs and will play either the Saints or the Pontiacs. Like the latter, the Thunder have found themselves in a bit of a skid in the stretch drive and will want to snap a three game losing streak before the Spring tournament.
The Thunder play a pair of home games to close out their regular campaign, hosting the Olds Grizzlys on Friday and the Fort McMurray Oil Barons on Saturday.
Drumheller Dragons (35-19-4, 74 points, 3rd AJHL South)
The Drumheller Dragons will be unable to move up or down the standings in the final weekend of the AJHL season, and will finish 3rd in the South.
To close out their season, the Dragons make a quick trip to Olds to face the Grizzlys for the final time this season on Friday night and then on Sunday they’ll get a chance to avenge a 5-2 loss to the Calgary Mustangs earlier this week. The loss was physical with playoff intensity and Sunday could also serve as a preview of a first round playoff series.
Fort McMurray Oil Barons (30-19-8, 68 points, 4th AJHL North)
The Fort McMurray Oil Barons have three games still remaining in their season, more than any other team in the AJHL, but winning or losing them all won’t cause the MOB to rise or fall in the standings. The Oil Barons are locked into 4th place, and they’ll have home ice advantage against the Grande Prairie Storm in the 1st Round of the playoffs.
The Oil Barons will finish their season with a lengthy road trip, which features a jam packed weekend against a trio of division rivals. On Friday, the Oil Barons are in Sherwood Park against the top-seeded Crusaders before they visit the Thunder in Drayton Valley on Saturday and close out their season against the Saints in Spruce Grove on Sunday afternoon.
The Oil Barons are rolling at the right time, winning their last five games and eight of their last ten.
Grande Prairie Storm (30-25-3, 63 points, 5th AJHL North)
Another team who knows their destiny, the Storm will look to extend a three-game win streak to close out the regular season before beginning their playoff series against the Fort McMurray Oil Barons on the road. The Storm will try to do it on the road against two of the top three teams in the North, facing the Spruce Grove Saints on Friday and the Sherwood Park Crusaders on Saturday.
While Grande Prairie is mathematically unable to improve their seeding and the Crusaders have clinched the division, the Saints are red hot and are looking to surpass the Pontiacs for second in the North.
Lloydminster Bobcats (9-47-2, 20 points, 8th AJHL North)
For the second time in three seasons, the Lloydminster Bobcats will unfortunately miss out on the post season and will close out this campaign on the road. On Friday, the Bobcats will take on the Pontiacs in a crucial game for Bonnyville before ending the year against the Wolverines in Whitecourt on Saturday.
The Bobcats have already spent some time laying the groundwork for a return to the playoffs last season, and fans in Lloydminster can look forward to a competitive ‘Cats squad in 2019-2020 that’s stocked with local talent from the border city.
Okotoks Oilers (39-17-2, 80 points, 2nd AJHL South)
The Okotoks Oilers know they’ll finish 2nd in the AJHL South Division, they know they’ll be playing the Calgary Canucks in the opening round of the playoffs, and they know they’re in for a big weekend as they close out the year with a home and home against the Brooks Bandits.
Paced by newly named League MVP Dylan Holloway, the Oilers have picked up wins in two straight and would love the spoil the Bandits’ bid to finish the season with the fewest losses in AJHL history. The first game goes Friday in Okotoks and both teams close out their regular seasons Saturday night in Brooks.
Olds Grizzlys (6-49-3, 15 points, 8th AJHL South)
It came down to the wire, but the Olds Grizzlys were unable to keep pace with the Calgary Canucks as they were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs with just two games remaining in their season. However, the pressure of a playoff race could serve to be invaluable experience for Olds as they look to return to the playoffs next year after missing in two straight seasons.
To close out their regular season, the Grizzlys will visit the Drayton Valley Thunder on Friday and then return home on Saturday to host the Drumheller Dragons.
Sherwood Park Crusaders (42-14-2, 86 points, 1st AJHL North)
For the first time in 16 years, the Sherwood Park Crusaders will enter the AJHL playoffs as the top seed in the North Division and will skip past the first round directly into the division semi-finals. The Crusaders are cruising, winning eight of their last ten games and three straight to surpass the Bonnyville Pontiacs in dramatic fashion.
The Crusaders will look to leave the regular season by earning wins in a pair of home games, welcoming the Fort McMurray Oil Barons and Grande Prairie Storm on Friday and Saturday respectively.
Spruce Grove Saints (39-16-3, 81 points, 3rd AJHL North)
They say timing is everything, and right now the Spruce Grove Saints are the hottest team in the North Division despite several key injuries. Having won eight straight and not falling in regulation in their last ten games, the Saints look to improve their playoff standing in the final weekend of the season.
Trailing Bonnyville by just a point for 2nd in the North, the Saints will try to surge past their rivals when they host the Grande Prairie Storm on Friday and the Fort McMurray Oil Barons on Saturday. Depending on how things shake out at the Grant Fuhr Arena and the RJ Lalonde Arena in Bonnyville, the Saints will play either the Drayton Valley Thunder or the Whitecourt Wolverines in the first round of the playoffs.
Whitecourt Wolverines (20-36-2, 42 points, 7th AJHL North)
The Wolverines hold the last playoff spot in the North, and that won’t change regardless of any result in the final weekend of the season though their first round opponent might. Whether it’s Bonnyville or Spruce Grove, the Wolverines will undoubtedly want to snap their three game losing streak before the chips are down in the playoffs.
To close out the year, Whitecourt will host the Lloydminster Bobcats on Friday before making the trek to Bonnyville to take on the Pontiacs on Sunday afternoon in what could be a playoff preview matchup.