For Bram Stephen, the new head coach of the Spruce Grove Saints, it’s a toss-up as to whether the pre-season is about winning games or about players winning spots on the roster.
“A little bit of both,” he said to that question following his team’s 3-2 win over the Sherwood Park Crusaders, that evened the Saints record at 3-3 with one exhibition contest left. “We want to learn early on how to finish games and we’ve actually struggled with that a little bit in Camrose and then obviously last night,” where his crew saw a 4-0 lead evaporate resulting in a 6-5 OT decision for Drayton Valley.
“So generally speaking I’m not so worried about the results but it was good for the boys to feel that pressure (against the Cru) and respond the way they did tonight. That’s a big confidence booster.”
In that win the Saints fell behind 1-0, tied things up, took a lead, gave that up, then got a late power play tally from Dylan Bourlai for the win. Logan Ganie had the other two Saints goals.
As the pre-season grinds to a halt and the regular season looms large, the bench boss suggested he’s put some time into thinking about what sort of lineup he wants the Saints to ice this year. But right now, they’re busy working on systems and positioning as time winds down for final roster decisions to be made.
“We’re here to try to gain some structure as a group, gain some habits and start working as a cohesive unit. It’s been a long process and through that we find the best players that are suited to our style of play and are ready to play at this level.”
“We want to be physically fit and the mentality of take no prisoners,” Stephen continued about what he'd like to see on the ice. “You do need a bit of size going that way but we’re looking for guys that can anticipate, play the game real fast. We’re looking for guys that compete, that have skill sets to play at this level.”
Through those half dozen exhibition showings from the club’s hopefuls, Stephen said he’s seen a lot he likes.
“There’s a couple of things. Number one, there’s a really good group of men in there,” he said nodding toward a rather noisy post-game dressing room. “That’s a fantastic group as far as character goes. They’ve meshed real well despite the fact it (training camp) is an internal competition.
“On the ice, we have the ability to make a lot of quick plays, jump through holes, turn offensive plays out of nothing really and that’s a big asset of our hockey team.”
Mellowing his enthusiasm just a bit, Stephen noted there are also some early season wrinkles that need to be ironed out.
“Our reads are a little bit high-risk right now so we’ll have to teach them about that but it’s good that we’re pushing for that because it’s a bit of a transition for some of these guys, that’s for sure.”
About playing the final three pre-season contests in the same number of days, Stephen noted he feels it will be a benefit far down the road.
“It (schedule) was set for us before our staff came in,” he pointed out, “however with that being said it is a good thing. We don’t have a three-in-three all year long which is nice but at the same time when you go to the playoffs you play four-in-five so that’s a message that when it matters most, late in the season, we’re going to need to be physically and mentally sharp, so this is like a test drive.”
And now the Saints drive off into the regular 60-game campaign, opening on Friday, Sept.15 in Whitecourt. Their home opener, complete with their new look jerseys, is the next night, Saturday, Sept. 16, when they host the Wolverines in the backend of a home-and-home series. Puck drop is 7 p.m. at the Grant Fuhr Arena.
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