Considering the tough schedule to kick off the 2017-18 season, and the learning curve for the new players, the start to the year has been a decent one. That’s the view of Spruce Grove Saints bench boss Bram Stephen, but at the same time he notes there are a few issues to work out.
Coming off a weekend split up north with the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, a 2-1 OT win and then a 5-1 loss, Stephen noted that his team’s third-place standing in the North Division, a month into the season, is acceptable.
“It’s been a tough schedule the first 10 games when you’ve got Drumheller twice, Brooks, and Whitecourt and Fort McMurray twice each. I think we’re OK with the results right now,” the coach said of his team’s 6-3-1 record after those 10 outings.
Stephen pointed out the coaching staff have been pleased with one aspect of their game and have seen another area coming along well.
“I think we’ve had success in multiple games with the power play and the penalty kill is getting better,” he began about positives to date. “The group has gelled well and they seem to be getting along well and want to work hard for each other and that’s a big piece this early in the season.”
However, not everything is up to what the staff want to see at this point in time.
“Practice habits still need to come a long way but they are improving day to day. I just like offensively how we’ve started to open the game up a bit. Our competitive level needs to be a little more consistent but overall, we’ve taken steps in the right direction,” explained Stephen.
Going forward, with two divisional match-ups this weekend at home, the lead man pointed out his troops need to be better from the get-go, especially on home ice.
“Yeah, we need to have better starts at home,” he stated. “That’s been a little inconsistent. Sometimes that’s been great like against Bonnyville (where his squad jumped out to a 5-0 lead) and sometimes it hasn’t (a loss to Drumheller on home ice).
“You want to get off on the right page at home and we want to make sure we’re putting in a consistent, honest, hard-working effort at home. You can’t just wish for results, you need to go through the process as a hockey team and the results take care of themselves later on, as cliché as that is.”
As for his young players moving up from midget Triple A to junior, and the learning curve that entails, Stephen noted his squad is one of the youngest in the AJ and grooming the rookies takes some time.
“It’s been a learning lesson, especially having played Fort Mac and Drumheller, a heavy, hard team, twice each. It’s been an adjustment for sure and something we’ve had challenges with. We are a young group; I think us and Okotoks are probably the two youngest teams in the league right now and we’re both doing well. It’s a hopeful sign. It’s been a tough schedule to start and lessons have been learned. Hopefully we see some development as far as the battle level, the intensity level, the consistency in that battle level, especially with our young guys.”
That battle level issue was perhaps illustrated over the past weekend in Fort McMurray where the OT win was a big one but the next night it was a case of not focusing for the entire 60 minutes.
“I think we gave up enough scoring chances over the course of the game that we deserved to get four scored on us,” the coach said of the second night’s 5-1 (with an empty net goal) loss. “It so happened they capitalized in the third,” which the Saints entered trailing 2-1. “I don’t know if we necessarily played better in the second or third; the first period was definitely our best.”
Stephen did point out this was another 3-in-4 quirk of his club’s schedule, although they did come out with wins in the first two contests.
“Both times we’ve had the third game in four days, we’ve lost it. I think one of the lessons our group needs to learn is how to create offence when we’re playing a team that comes back to the puck hard and also create offence when you’re playing that third game in four nights. We struggled in both the Drumheller game at the Showcase (a 3-1 loss) and then Fort McMurray.”
The Saints will look to reignite their offence this weekend, at home, when they host Whitecourt on Friday night at 7 p.m. and then tangle with the Drayton Valley Thunder on Sunday, at 2 p.m. Both games will be played at the Grant Fuhr Arena and tickets are available at the door and online at www.sprucegrovesaints.ca
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