It may have taken while longer than anyone maybe expected but the Spruce Grove Saints gave their bench boss an early Christmas gift by wrapping up their pre-holiday schedule with a 4-2 win over the Sherwood Park Crusaders.
“That’s a team that’s improved,” Bram Stephen, the Saints lead man behind the bench, commented about the Cru after the win. While his troops pretty well dominated the contest out-shooting the visitors 53-25, it looked for the longest time that the Park’s goalie, Brandon Vogel, had thoughts of becoming The Grinch That Stole Christmas, making a number of great stops including stoning Graeme Bryks from close in on a one-timer.
The Saints finally solved the riddle of beating the Grinch, er, Vogel, when Parker Saretsky tied the game at 2-2 late in the second and then Jamieson Ree, with 4:30 left in the third netted the winner That was followed a couple of minutes later when Sean Comrie tallied the insurance marker on a great shot from the point. Jordan Biro opened the game’s scoring in the early minutes of the first period.
“Their goaltender played really well,” Stephen said in recap of the night. “I don’t think we necessarily always had the best shot selection in the early part of the game. But at the same time, I liked out stick-to-itiveness. The second half of the second period, and the third, were really solid. It took 55 minutes to get that go-ahead goal, but we got ‘er and the guys shut it down pretty well in the last five minutes.”
With his club tied for first place in the tough North Division, although Fort McMurray has two games in hand, Stephen took some time to talk about how he viewed his team’s efforts in their first 35 games of a 60 game schedule.
“I think if somebody had said we’d have this many injuries,” including losing both starting goalie Nolan Kent and captain Josh Harris for lengthy periods of time and having his top associate coach move to another club as their head coach, “and we’d have the record we have, I’d certainly have taken it,” he noted of their 25-7-3 mark.
“More than that though, I really like the development we’ve seen from some of our younger guys, the rookies in particular. We’re able to play the game with depth. I like that we’ve gotten better defensively, as far as risk management, over the course of the first 35 games but at the same time have found ways to open it up and create more offence.”
While this isn’t the same team that was iced at the start of the year, the trades and player additions made by GM Rob Sklaruk and Stephen, have to say the least, worked out well. Chris Van Os-Shaw, the first deal made by the pair, has proven to be the steal of the year for the Saints. The big power forward leads the club with 48 points on 28 goals and sits second overall in league scoring. He has suited up for every game so far this season.
“Certainly some of the additions have really helped us, with (Jamieson) Ree, Van Os-Shaw, and (Brad) Forrest. (Hayden) Missler in net (7-2-1 record, two shutouts).”
At the same time, like any coach, there are areas that Stephen thinks need some improvement going forward.
“We like things moving forward but there is a lot of work to be done. A lot of small details we need to take care of.”
While the season begins to wind down, the Saints do need to finalize their roster. The trade/cut deadline is Jan. 10, 2018, and while Stephen wasn’t giving away any trade secrets, he did mention one move that must be made and the idea of some sort of last-minute transaction wasn’t totally waved off.
“We only have room, perhaps, to bring in one more player. Right now we need to have one less on our roster by January 10. Whether that means that player is still in-house on a Junior B card or not, we’re not sure. There are certainly some talks that need to be had internally and with other teams. I don’t really know where we’ll be on January 11th, but it won’t be too much different, that’s for sure.”
As for how he’s found his first season in the AJHL, Stephen said he’s loving every minute of this hockey life. He came to the Saints after coaching in the Alberta College league, where he guided Grant MacEwan to the title last season.
“The organization’s treated the coaching staff very, very well,” he began. “The players are a high-calibre group of young men that are fun to work with every day. There’s a little more time on the bench than I’m used to (compared to college). It’s a 60-game schedule and you have to find a way to hold everyone accountable but at the same time make sure it’s an enjoyable ride for them.
“It doesn’t feel too much different other than the training schedule through the week. I’m really impressed with the fact that as a coach it’s easier to mould players to a certain style of play and certain habits compared to college where a lot of the technical skills and individual tactics are hard to change. That’s been really exciting for me as a coach, and my staff.”
With 25 games, plus playoffs still on the horizon, Stephen, his staff and the players know there’s still a long way to go, but to this point of the year they have certainly done all they can to once again become, and remain, a contender in the AJHL North.
*PHOTOS BY DAVE ROSS
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