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The road to the Inter Pipeline Cup in the AJHL’s North division isn’t favourable for any team in the hunt, with every team able to put forward a strong case on why they could be crowned kings of the north. Let’s get to the series and how the teams matchup head to head in the first round best-of-five’s.
Division Champion, BYE: Spruce Grove Saints (47-10-3-97 points)
(2) Fort McMurray Oil Barons 89 points VS (7) Bonnyville Pontiacs 48 points
Fort McMurray vs Bonnyville this season:
Why the Fort McMurray Oil Barons can win: The Oil Barons were neck and neck with the Saints for the division crown until the last month of the season and even then, the separation isn’t by much. On the scoresheet, the Oil Barons had a strong showing against the Pontiacs this year and it stayed consistent, with the two clashing for the first time in October and then for the last time in February. Additionally, Head Coach Tom Keca is able to rely on many of the same players who made a run to the division final last season and with several of those players set to move on this summer, one final run and a chance to play for an RBC Cup berth has to be a pretty juicy carrot at the end of the stick. The MOB also enter the post season playing some strong hockey, taking three of four against the Whitecourt Wolverines to end their regular season.
Bonnyville vs Fort McMurray this season:
Why the Bonnyville Pontiacs can win: Statistically, this series is the biggest mismatch in the north on paper. But, luckily for the Pontiacs, the game isn’t played on paper- it’s played on ice. The first positive for the Pontiacs is that a shortened five game series benefits them if they are able to sneak a win out of the opening two tilts in Fort McMurray…which is exactly what they did on January 23rd, when they came from behind and scored twice in the 3rd period to take a 3-2 win. Head Coach and GM Rick Swan certainly moved some upper echelon skill out of Bonnyville this season to build for the future, but the Pontiacs have gelled with a somewhat new group and if the ‘Yaks are able to take a series tie (or lead) back to Bonnyville, anything can happen. Additionally, one of the pieces coming back to the Pontiacs in those trades is defender Luke Albert, who racked up 20 points in 27 games wearing Bonnyville black. The Pontiacs will want to keep it close and an improvement on the special teams from the season series could be the great equalizer. The series isn’t exactly as Average Joes vs Globo Gym as it would appear, but maybe Bonnyville wants it that way.
(3) Whitecourt Wolverines 73 points VS (6) Lloydminster Bobcats 49 points
Whitecourt vs. Lloydminster this season:
Why the Whitecourt Wolverines can win: Last year, the Wolverines slugged out three rounds to earn a berth in the AJHL Championship for the first time ever, and while they took a step back statistically in the standings this season they are still among the league’s best. The Wovlerines racked up 20 wins on home ice this season including all three against the Lloydminster Bobcats (outscoring them 14-1) which makes home ice something of a factor, especially with the home team winning every meeting of the year between these two. Two of those victories were also shutout wins for Whitecourt, with Xavier Potvin in the blue paint for both goose eggs. Liam Motley and Jaedon Leslie are among the league’s best at putting the puck in the net while Tyr Thompson compliments the Whitecourt offence nicely. The AJHL’s all-time winningest coach is also on Whitecourt’s bench and Gord Thibodeau has certainly done it all in this league. Finally cracking Lloydminster’s penalty kill and closing out the Bobcats in Lloydminster should be enough for Whitecourt to vault themselves into the second round but it will certainly be earned- not given.
Lloydminster vs. Whitecourt this season:
Why the Lloydminster Bobcats can win: Simply? Because they just can. Aside from an 8-0 blowout loss against the Wolverines, the Bobcats have been able to keep games between themselves and Whitecourt very close in the other five meetings, despite being outshot every single time. A strong goaltending performance have been delivered on more than one occasion, and the late season addition of Bailey Brkin allows the Bobcats to boast one of the best goaltending tandems in the league. If there’s a goaltender capable of stealing a game in a tough environment while potentially seeing 40 or more pucks against, it’s Brkin. Additionally, the Bobcats penalty kill silenced the Whitecourt power play all season and if they’re able to get over a rough stretch which closed out their campaign (just two wins in their last ten), head coach Travis Clayton’s Bobcats just might find themselves off to the second round only a season after missing the playoffs entirely.
(4) Grande Prairie Storm 59 points VS (5) Sherwood Park Crusaders 56 points
Grande Prairie vs Sherwood Park this season:
Why the Grande Prairie Storm can win: The Grande Prairie Storm possess one of, if not the best, groups of top-skill players in the AJHL. The Storm are the only team in the league that can deploy three of the top ten point scorers this season (Comeau, Michaud, Bernier) and finished the campaign with five point per game players on the roster. Those players also loved playing the Crusaders, with four of them averaging over a point per game. The Storm can play fire wagon hockey with the best of them and in six meetings against the Sherwood Park Crusaders this year, the lowest amount of combined goals scored was eight. Head Coach Matt Keillor’s Storm are among the most improved teams in the AJHL this year and have a nice mix of experience and youth to rely on this series. The regular season series against the Crusaders was favourable for the Storm on home ice and if the Storm’s high octane offence is able capitalize- particularly while a man up- they will 'score' a ticket to the next round of the playoffs.
Sherwood Park vs Grande Prairie this season:
Why the Sherwood Park Crusaders can win: The Crusaders were jostling with the Storm for home ice advantage in this series until the last weekend of the season and missed out on it by three points. While they don’t have home ice, the Cru do have the knowledge of splitting the season series down the middle against the Storm and are able to match them goal-for-goal so there’s no real fear for Sherwood Park about potential track meets on ice. Up front, Crusaders forward Dylan Stewart absolutely owned the Storm this season, scoring eight times and racking up 11 points, meaning he scored one quarter of his entire goal total against Grande Prairie. The Crusaders, like the Storm, also went 5-5 in their last ten games and head coach Adam Manah has balanced Sherwood Park as somewhat of a chameleon on the ice- they’ll play any kind of hockey to get a win. The health of Sherwood Park’s two goaltenders is a factor, as both were injured in the last two weeks of the season, but are expected to be ready to go for Game 1 tonight which could be a big boost right off the hop.
-Tom Strangward @TheOneNDTom