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Posted March 19th, 2018 @ 12:27 pm

Lengthy layoff doesn’t hurt Saints speed, scoring, in first two games of playoffs

By Gord Montgomery

The start to their 2018 playoff run couldn’t have gone any better for the Spruce Grove Saints, even in a storybook sense. After all, who expected the Saints to come out of a 13-day layoff, thanks to a first-round bye, firing on all cylinders?

Well, maybe their coach who noted after Game 2, that practice helps make perfect. You see, during the year the Saints had schedule breaks of up to five days off, so they knew how to stay sharp while not playing.

Following home ice wins of 8-0 and 5-2 over the Grande Prairie Storm, bench boss Bram Stephen said his troops were ready to roll in their first game back.

“First of all, we’re putting a lot of time in the bank in practice. You never know how much time you’re going to get when you get into playoffs. We worked on a lot of details and over time when we’ve done that we’ve actually started better when we started playing again.”

Stephen pointed out that his club had several longer than usual schedule breaks this sea-son so they were used to laying low, but there was one thing that did surprise him in the opening game.

“The timing surprised me a little bit. There wasn’t a ton of rust to knock off but the com-petitiveness and attention to details, you could see,” and that meant a great start for the Saints in the best-of-seven series.

The Saints came out flying in Game 1, hemming the Storm in their own end for the ma-jority of the first period, out-shooting them 21-2 and out-scoring them 4-0. They got their first two goals early on from Jordan Biro and TJ Lloyd 32 seconds apart and then added two more 19 seconds apart late in the period from captain Josh Harris and Chris Van Os-Shaw. The game’s remaining markers came from Biro, Austin Parameter (2) and Damon Zimmer.

Team captain, and the longest serving member of the Saints Josh Harris, said everyone was ready to go from the opening whistle on in that first game.

“I think our coaches prepared us throughout the whole year, had us focus on ourselves. We worked hard in practice and I think it’s definitely been showing.”

A big part of the first game win, and what proved to be the turning point in the second game, was the Saints ability to control the flow of the game. When they’re skating well, there are few teams in the league that can stick with them for 60 minutes.

“We play the best when we’re playing fast,” Harris noted. “They’d already played five games (against Sherwood Park) and our mentality was to put pressure on them; have them make mistakes. Keep pressuring them all over the ice. Have them turn over pucks and cre-ate offence.”

The second night’s victory wasn't quite as easy, but the Saints got back to what had them earning that opening round rest as they picked up the pace and swarmed the Storm in the third period. The two teams were tied 2-2 late in the second, but a great goal by Van Os-Shaw, the league’s MVP and leading scorer this past season, put the Saints up to stay. In the third, Nick Leyer scored on the PP and then Zimmer ended any hopes of a Storm comeback with seven minutes left. Other goals came from Tanner Hickey, on a great one-timer and Parker Saretsky.

About that game, that perhaps looked more like what most people expected the first game to look like, Stephen and Harris both noted there may have been the result of the opening game more than anything.

“We weren’t as mentally sharp as we needed to be for the first 30, 35 minutes,” said Ste-phen. “They made some adjustments, both tactically and with their lines, that we needed to adjust back to. It’s kind of ping-pong, back and forth. You need to make in-game ad-justments.”

Said Harris, “We didn't get off to the start we wanted,” he noted of the Saints twice hold-ing a 1-goal lead and surrendering them. “As the game went on we talked about things we needed to improve on and as we did that, we had more success and started to do better.”

It’s said that defence wins in the playoffs and the Saints certainly showed that with their two performances, out-shooting the Storm by a combined 90-36 and out-scoring them 13-2. That kind of zone coverage, said Harris, has long been a hallmark of this organization, no matter who’s wearing the threads.

“Something the Saints have always done well is defend very well,” the captain agreed. “When I came here as a 17 year old, that was always the key — defence wins games. I think we’ve definitely carried that on.”

The last thing Stephen spoke about was on-ice composure and how important that is at this time of year and especially now, going on the road for the next two games. The Storm, and one player in particular, have keyed on Van Os-Shaw, looking to get under his skin and perhaps draw him into situations the Saints certainly don’t want to see him in-volved in.

“This is a very selfless group and they’re committed to each other. They know not to take bad penalties. You’ve got to eat it every once in a while, but it pays off  most times,” he said in answer to a question about the unsportsmanlike penalty the Storm took that result-ed in the insurance marker by Leyer early in the third period that essentially ended any hopes of a Storm comeback.

So the storyline appears simple for Spruce Grove as they head north for the next two games — play fast and stay out of the penalty box because it’s clear from the first two games that the Storm can’t match the depth, or the speed, of the Saints.

Both games from Grande Prairie will be broadcast live on 88.1 The One with Tom Stangward providing the play-by-play. The first game is Monday night, with the pre-game show at 7 p.m. and the game facing off at 7:30. The same time frame holds true the next night. The game’s call can be found online at 881theone.ca.

* PHOTOS BY DAVE ROSS

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