Smiles all around after yet another series sweep by Saints
By Gord Montgomery
WHITECOURT — The smiles said it all, especially the one plastered across Josh Har-ris’ face — an ear-to-ear grin that just wouldn't go away.
Harris, the captain of the Spruce Grove Saints and the rest of his teammates were fully deserving of their celebratory smiles after their second straight playoff series sweep. This time the Saints took the Whitecourt Wolverines down 4-0 in the North Division final of the AJHL playoffs. That followed the four-game rout of the Grande Prairie Storm in their opening round.
This second straight sweep wasn’t quite as easy as the first one though, where the Saints out-scored the Storm 28-2. No, this series was began with three one-goal wins before the winners stamped their ticket to the AJHL Inter Pipeline Cup Final with a 6-2 win. Even that game though was a one-goal affair into the third period before the Saints broke it open.
Speaking afterwards, the smile still there, Harris said the character of this team shone through in this tough, grinding series.
“Yeah, this is something we’ve been waiting for for a long time. We’ve stepped in and enjoyed the playoff hockey. Our group is great and it’s a lot of fun playing with these guys and I’m excited for what’s to come.”
Looking back to what had taken place in the four games, bench boss Bram Stephen praised his troops for staying composed in the face of checking adversity and some big hits.
“The group really holds each other accountable that way,” said Stephen. “We steal the mantra off the New Zealand All Black rugby team if we’re getting a little hot tempered it’s red head and we’ve got to get back to blue head (Note: “Red head” is confused and dysfunctional under pressure – a “blue head” is calm, focused and efficient under the same conditions).”
In regard to the style the Wolverines presented, Stephen noted of all but the last period of play in the series: “It was very tight checking. It was difficult to gain the zone and it was difficult to be checked in the offensive zone. But tonight we got to them in their D zone and when you play man-on-man hockey down low, which they do, that tends to wear a team out,” which showed up dramatically in the final period as the Saints out-scored the Wolverines 4-1.
Turning to the play of a very special young man, who came back strongly after an injury earlier this season, the coach praised the leadership of his captain.
“Teams go as their leaders go and they emulate their leaders and that extends to your leaders on the ice and your social leaders off the ice. Josh is an unbelievable leader of both, to be honest. I saw stuff out of him this year I didn’t know he had, another gear. All our guys emulated that and they seemed to show another gear they hadn’t shown all year. That’s the sign of a team that can play in the clutch and a sign of leadership on the ice.”
Harris, who had a goal and two helpers in the final game, credited the Wolverines for their strong defensive play and coaching. But, he agreed, once the Saints got a two-goal lead, twice in the final period, they were able to skate away from the checking style Whitecourt played and open things up.
“They’re very tight defensively. Gord (Thibodeau) is a great coach and coaches them well and coaches them hard. But once we started evading our checks, had free lanes to the net, started crashing the net,” things took a turn for the better. “We had to use our speed and we were more rested than they were,” plus the use of all four lines by Stephen against two-and-a-few used by Thibodeau made all the difference in this series.
As the only player left from the last Saints championship team, Harris knows it’s up to hi to shoulder the mantle of leadership in demonstrating what it takes to win at this time of year. He noted it took a while to get everything lined up with this team, but he now sees there’s a good chance at ending his great junior career as a winner once again.
“Halfway through the season I sat down and told the guys that I saw a lot of positives in the room and that was something I felt in my rookie year, and we went on to win. I was telling the guys it’s going to be hard but it’s going to be worth it. Lifting that trophy, go-ing back to my first year, is just great! I told the guys that it’s going to be hard but worth it.”
With the smile still spread across his face, Harris said, “This is just a great feeling!”
While Stephen had to be pleased as well, he remained poker-faced and noted another 10 day rest for his guys as they await the winner of the Okotoks/Brooks series, is a good thing.
“Anytime you can rest and practice it’s good and this team has shown when they practice they start out better. We’re used to it now and we know our routine and we’ll just get back at ‘er,” with smiles on everyone’s face but likely none bigger than that of Josh Harris.
Besides the opening goal by Harris, other markers for the Saints came from Chris Van Os-Shaw, Brett Trentham with the game-winner early in the third period, Chase Olsen on the power play, TJ Lloyd and Austin Parameter with an empty-netter.
The next series begins Friday, April 13 either in Okotoks if they win their series or in the Grove, if Brooks takes the South Final, which is now tied at two games apiece.
*Photos By Dave Ross
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