The 2016-17 Alberta Junior Hockey League season began Sept. 16, 2016 with all 16 teams hoping to chart their own path towards being crowned as the 2017 Gas Drive Cup champion.
For some it was a matter of reclaiming the title they had won in previous years or finally breaking through to capture that elusive first title. Through 532 games, the field of 16 teams has gradually been whittled down to two remaining teams, each representing the Viterra AJHL North and South Divisions.
The Whitecourt Wolverines, a first-time North Division champion, and Brooks Bandits, the AJHL’s defending league champion once again coming out of a competitive South Division, remain as those two teams with both looking to wage a fierce battle on each other to earn an invitation to the 2017 Western Canada Cup in Penticton, B.C.
The series itself begins at the Centennial Regional Arena Friday and Saturday and features the continuation of several storylines that have gained momentum throughout the course of the season.
For the Bandits, their annual success has once again put them up as the toast of their division. For the fifth time in the past six seasons, the Bandits will represent their division in the Gas Drive Cup Final and have put together another roster that exudes the confidence and capabilities of returning to the RBC Cup in Cobourg, Ont. in May.
They’ve lost just one game in this year’s post-season run and outscored their opponents 56-12 along the way. Josh McKechney’s six goals and 19 points in nine games, two ahead of Parker Foo’s 17 in a similar amount of games, have led the Bandits.
Other Bandits like Ty Mappin, Nick Prkusic, Cale Makar, Conner Jean, Oliver Chau, Dennis Cesana and Nathan Plessis are averaging a point per game or better. University of Alaska-Fairbanks commit Mitchel Benson has been stellar in net, stopping 209 of the 221 shots he’s faced so far, which works out to a .946 save percentage and 1.31 goals against average.
There is also the matter of championship titles, the most tangible measure of success for every junior A team across the province. In the 17 championships won since the 1999-00 season, the Bandits have won three of them, all coming in the previous five seasons. Adding another title in these next two weeks would pull them even with the Spruce Grove Saints, who sit one back of the Camrose Kodiaks’ five titles.
The one team tasked with denying the Bandits all of their accolades are the Wolverines, who have emerged from the dogfight in the Viterra AJHL North Division as champions. The Wolverines did so after gaining a measure of revenge on the Fort McMurray Oil Barons last weekend with a series win on the same ice they lost the regular season division title on a month earlier.
Having delivered their first North Division title to the city of Whitecourt, head coach Gord Thibodeau and his team will be vying to keep their season going.
Starting with Thibodeau, adding another AJHL championship to his coaching resumé would be a fitting continuation of a season that saw him become the winningest coach in league history and led a Wolverines team to their first berth in a league championship series.
In true Thibodeau fashion however, he’d be the first to deflect the spotlight away from himself, but as cliché as it would be to say it was a team-effort to get them this far, it really was players up and down the team’s lineup that contributed.
Justin Young and Joseph Nardi sit atop the AJHL’s playoff scoring race with 21 points each, though Young has a 13-6 edge in goals through the team’s 16 post-season games.
On top of their contributions, Liam Motley has continued to hum along at a steady offensive pace with 15 points. Mitch Lipon has 14 points and the Nova Scotian pair of Morgan Messenger and Nick Quillan each have 12 points in this post-season run with the Wolverines.
Goaltender Pierce Diamond has overcome some shaky performances against both Spruce Grove and Fort McMurray to ultimately come out on the winning side of both series. He’ll get tested and then some as the Bandits will throw everything they can at him. How he handles the first two games in Brooks will go a long way in determining how he’ll fare in the series, but he’s a factor you can never truly count out.
The season series saw the Bandits win both games, one in Brooks in September and the other in Whitecourt in November. If either head coach was going to put any stock into those games, both clubs have changed so much since then that’s pointless to over-analyze those games.
Of note in those games though is that Diamond didn’t play in either of them, backing up Aaron Mackay and Liam McCloskey in those games.
What fans can put stock in though is that this has all the makings of a classic league final. Both teams got to where they are by scoring at will on their opponents, even as the competition stiffened in their respective division finals. Seeing which team will bend or break first will be one of the most intriguing features of the series to watch.