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With October in the rearview mirror, the highlight of the 2017-2018 AJHL season continues to be very close divisional races. Despite a flurry of games every weekend, very few teams have seemed to pull away completely and the divisional standings continue to be simply a reshuffled deck every Monday morning. Come this weekend, a handful of rivalry matchups could create some separation - even if it’s modest.
An excellent example is found in the Viterra AJHL South Division, where the Olds Grizzlys (5-11-1) and Calgary Canucks (8-9-1) will meet in a home and home beginning in Olds on Friday. A nasty five game losing streak has the Grizzlys 2 points back of the final playoff spot held down by the Camrose Kodiaks (4-8-5) while the Canucks seem to be slowly turning the page on a rocky start with just four regulation losses in their last 10. With a pair of wins, the Grizzlys stand to pull within two points of the Canucks, hauling them right into the muck of a fiercely competitive division which sees the middle pack of 5 teams separated by just 8 points. The Canucks’ penalty kill has recently climbed into 9th overall in the league an intriguing matchup could develop against the Grizzlys’ power play as Olds has allowed an AJHL-high 7 shorthanded goals against.
Another southern soiree will see the Brooks Bandits (13-4-1), Camrose Kodiaks (4-8-5) and Calgary Mustangs (8-9-1) all matchup against each other once this weekend. On Friday, the Kodiaks will head into Brooks as the coldest team in the league looking to shrug off a nine game slide. Brooks, on the other hand, is starting to look more and more like the decisive defending league champions and perennial winner everyone comes to expect with a five game winning streak and an extra-time loss representing their only set back in their last ten games. The Bandits are scoring in bunches right now, scoring at least 4 goals in their last five games- all victories. The Kodiaks, meanwhile, have been close to ending their winless slide losing their last two games 4-3; including a shootout loss to powerhouse Okotoks. From Brooks, the Kodiaks head back home to take on the Mustangs on Saturday and should they be staring down the barrel of a 10 game losing streak they won’t be able to rely on the security of home ice. With just four points at home this year, Camrose is ahead of only 16th place Drayton Valley in home ice production. Meanwhile, the Mustangs look to add to a three game win streak and boast a 5-5 road record. To tie it all together, the Mustangs will meet the Bandits in Calgary on Sunday.
In the other southern rivalry matchup this weekend, the Okotoks Oilers (15-1-0) will meet the Drumheller Dragons (10-7-1) in another home and home. The Oilers have been simply sensational to start the season, as they enter November leading the league in points, goal scoring (73 goals for) and overall team defence (37 goals against). Gaudy numbers for sure, making them a tough battle for the Dragons in Drumheller tomorrow. The Dragons have impressed this year under new head coach Kevin Hasselberg but have fallen off the pace of the South’s top teams with four straight losses. A weekend humbling of the Oilers would put them within five points of Okotoks, making the south a three horse race for top spot in the division.
Shifting gears to the Viterra AJHL North Division, the Canmore Eagles (9-7-1) will swing through the division on a grueling three games in three days road trip starting with a stop in Grande Prairie against the Storm (10-5-3). After some rough seasons, the Storm aren’t catching anyone by surprise anymore and are looking at the visit from the Eagles (their only game of the weekend) as an opportunity to win their fourth in a row. The Eagles have spread their wings, too with a 7-2-1 stretch. Should the Eagles shelter the storm, it doesn’t get any easier as they then make the trip to the Scott Safety Centre in Whitecourt to greet the Wolverines (12-4-1). All time winningest AJHL coach Gord Thibodeau is doing what he does, and once again has the Wolverines challenging to be one of the best teams in the division. Before they return home, the Eagles will make an appearance against the Thunder in Drayton Valley- who will also be in Whitecourt on Friday.
The Lloydminster Bobcats (5-14-0) have the luxury of entertaining all weekend, and they face the two teams directly above them in the divisional standings. It starts on Saturday, when the ‘Cats welcome the Bonnyville Pontiacs (6-8-3). The Pontiacs and Bobcats will be meeting for the fourth time already this season, and so far the Pontiacs have held the balance of power outscoring Lloydminster 14-5 and picking up two wins in the three previous meetings. The bulk of the damage was done in the last matchup, with Bonnyville skating to an 8-1 win on October 6th. To close things out on their weekend, the Bobcats will take on the Sherwood Park Crusaders (7-9-1) who continue to yo-yo in the North. Right now, the yo-yo is walking the dog as the Crusaders enter the weekend with four straight losses and without scorer Merritt Oszytko, who they traded to Fort McMurray in exchange for centre Ryan Cox earlier this week. It won’t take long for Oszytko and Cox to face their former teammates - the Oil Barons and Crusaders play in the Park Friday.
The North-leading Fort McMurray Oil Barons (14-2-1) are looking to improve on their league-best 8-1 road record with trips to Drayton Valley (2-16-0) and Spruce Grove (13-4-1) this weekend as well. The Saints are currently playing their best hockey of the season, riding a four game win streak into the weekend and outscoring their opponents 14-5 in their last three games. Even more impressive, the Saints have done it all without standout goaltender Nolan Kent who remains out with an injury. In relief, Parker Tobin has shaken off three losses in his first three starts with the Saints to rattle off wins in his last five starts. Before taking on the MOB on Sunday the Saints will start their weekend on the road against the Bonnyville Pontiacs (6-8-3). It’s been awhile since the two teams met, but both teams will likely have the 10-1 Saints victory from September 23rd front of mind.
-Tom Strangward @TheOneNDTom