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The first round of the AJHL playoffs did not disappoint. In the Viterra AJHL North Division, fans were treated to three superb playoff series, each with their own unique storyline. However, one thing always stayed the same, the competitiveness.
Much like a typical night during the regular season, any of the games from round one could’ve gone either way which shows how good the competition is in the AJHL.
When it was all said and done, the Grande Prairie Storm, Whitecourt Wolverines, and Drayton Valley Thunder said farewell to their seasons, while the Bonnyville Pontiacs, Spruce Grove Saints, and Fort McMurray Oil Barons took one step closer to the ultimate goal. Now, with the first round in the books, let’s get prepared for what's to come in the second.
#2 Bonnyville (41-15-4) vs #3 Spruce Grove (40-17-3)
Neither the Bonnyville Pontiacs or Spruce Grove Saints breezed through their first round series against the Whitecourt Wolverines or Drayton Valley Thunder respectively. As many of the great hockey minds say 'they found a way to win' and at the end of the day that's all that matters.
The Pontiacs series versus the Wolverines was the shortest out of the two lasting only three games. Bonnyville took game one 5-1 on home ice after trailing 1-0 heading into the first intermission. They came out blazing in the second period, however, putting five goals by the Wolverines courtesy of Joel Ray, Daine Dubois, Cayden Kraus, Grayson Constable, and Isaac Saniga. Game two and three were both played out similarly to each other. Whitecourt scored a first-period goal forcing the Pontiacs to turn it up a notch in which they did scoring three goals in both contests. Bonnyville captain Constable led the charge for the Yaks with five points across the two games (seven overall), and in game two he was involved in all three goals in what was a fantastic captain's performance.
In Spruce Grove, the Grant Fuhr Arena was packed for games one and two of the Saints series versus the Drayton Valley Thunder. Matthew Davis put on a show on home ice conceding only once across the two games while recording a 27 shot shutout in game one. Spruce Grove would beat Drayton Valley 2-0 and then 2-1 before hitting the road for the Drayton Valley Omniplex. In game three, Luke Lush shut the door on the Saints offence with his 38 saves while on route to a 1-0 win and to make it 2-1 in the series. However, Spruce Grove responded the following night and closed out the series with a 4-3 victory. Cory Babicbuk was the hero for the Saints, in only his second game back, scoring with 9.3 seconds left in the third period to send Spruce Grove into the second round and one step closer to defending their title.
During the regular season, these Pontiacs and Saints competed closely against one another with five games ending in a one-goal game or including an empty netter. One interesting takeaway from their regular season head-to-head series was that the road team seems to hold the advantage. In their six matchups this season, on five occasions the road team travelled home with two points. The only time the home team won was on October 10th when Dubois scored an early second-period goal to give the Pontiacs a 2-1 victory at the RJ Lalonde Arena. We’ll have to keep an eye out to see if that trend continues during this series.
#1 Sherwood Park Crusaders (44-14-2) vs #4 Fort McMurray (32-19-9)
While the Sherwood Park Crusaders took a week off after earning a bye, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons took part in the first round following their fourth-placed finish in the regular season.
In the first round, the Oil Barons had the home-ice advantage over their opponents, the Grande Prairie Storm. Game one didn’t go quite as planned with the Oil Barons allow ing their playoff jitters to get the better of them, as they fell 4-2 to the Storm and down 1-0 in the series. One positive from that game was that Ty Ettinger scored his first career AJHL goal. Now, onto the rest of the series.
Fort McMurray looked to be heading down 2-0 in the series with Xavier Pouliot's goal being the only one of the game with less than five minutes to go. However, a rocket from the point by Jarred White flew by Kaiden Lane and changed the entire feel of the series. Brendan Stafford then went onto win that game in overtime. In game three and four, the offence turned up for the now travelling Barons winning game three 4-2 and then closing out the series with a 5-1 victory thanks to a Kole Gable hat trick. Chris Curr was fantastic for Fort McMurray. After a disappointing game one, the St Albert native picked up his game and became a brick wall in games two, three and four; averaging a 1.00 GAA along with a 0.953 SV%. Moving onto the next round, he's going to need to maintain that kind of form against a quality Sherwood Park Crusaders lineup.
Reed Morison has found himself in a slump which the Oil Barons would love for him to come out of sooner rather than later. After scoring 41 goals in the regular season, Morison was held scoreless in round one versus the Storm and is on in his longest drought of the season. His last goal came March 1 against the Sherwood Park Crusaders.
Speaking of Sherwood Park, they ended their regular season on a positive note with a 5-1 victory over the Storm, which broke a franchise record for most wins in a regular season. The trio of Arjun Atwal, Will Zapernick and Reid Irwin are heading into this series of five-game point streaks which includes a game against the Barons on March 1st. The Crusaders will be hoping that week off will give them the advantage over what could be a slightly worn down Oil Barons lineup.
The season series between these two leans in favour of the Crusaders on the boxscore, but when these two go head to head it is very evenly matched. Five out of their six meetings have ended with the difference being two or fewer goals. The only game that is different to that was back on November 7th when Jack Hamly scored a hat trick for the Oil Barons who went onto defeat the Crusaders 8-4. Luckily for the Crusaders, they will not have to worry about Hamly doing that this series since they acquired him from Fort McMurray back on November 28th in exchange for Tyson Scott. Overall, this is going to be an incredibly entertaining series to watch and if you live in either Sherwood Park and Fort McMurray it is highly recommended that you check it out.