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Posted October 15th, 2018 @ 1:49 pm

Even with targets on their backs, the Saints keep on rolling

By Gord Montgomery

Rather than seeing numbers on the backs of the Spruce Grove Saints, opponents this year are seeing targets. Big targets for that matter.

Assistant coach Derek Martin agreed that teams are attempting to show they’re not in-timidated by the defending league champions when they step onto the ice against them. While the Saints are a strong 10-3 so far in this campaign, many of those wins haven’t been easy to come by, even the 5-0 whitewash of the Drayton Valley Thunder in their latest outing. That win followed a come-from-behind 3-2 victory over Fort McMurray and a 2-1 loss to the Bonnyville Pontiacs.

“We definitely understand that people are coming in and recognizing that we did win last year,” Martin began. “We know they’re getting up for us and it’s something we’ve addressed in the dressing room.

“The unique thing about the league this year though is the parity and so a slow start can set you back,” a factor which has played out more often than not on the Saints side this season. While they had another tenuous start to their latest outing, they did rally to take control of the game from the second period on. “Luckily we’ve gotten good goaltending to help us out this year but that is something we’re aware of.”

Martin said the coaching staff took advantage of the downtime between games they had at the AJHL Showcase a few weeks back to assess what’s coming at them this year and they noticed that many teams, including Drayton Valley, look stronger than ever.

“In years past there’s been maybe five or six teams that are part of the conversation. This year, there’s really 10 or 11 that are part of it. There are some franchises that are rebuilding still, but they’re pushing, and they’re pushing hard.”

In their latest win, the Saints did in fact take a while to get going, again, but once they get their game together there are few teams in the league that can stay with them. After a scoreless first period, where the Thunder and the Saints each had 10 shots on goal, the home side began to pull away in the second. They got the game-winner from Brent Trentham midway through the second with Cory Balbichuk adding the insurance marker on a great goal four minutes later. In the third, they sewed thing up as Nick Leyer scored twice and Babichik added his second. Over the final 40 minutes, the Saints outshot the Thunder, now 3-10 on the season, 29-10 in taking control. Matthew Davis earned the zero in goal, giving him a 7-1 record and a stingy 1.26 GAA.

“We play a fast game when we’re buzzing,” Martin said of the squad coming to life in the final 40. “You saw us moving pucks a lot quicker in the second and third periods. That gives us the advantage. We’re a quick team and teams start chasing the game a lit-tle bit when we get going.”

One player that has been going well for the Saints so far this year has been newcomer Babichuk, who was acquired in a trade with the West Kelowna Rockets prior to season’s start. Thus far he’s netted four goals and added seven helpers. Interestingly enough, Babichuk, who grew up in Edmonton, used to come and watch the Saints skate when his neighour, Cameron Hughes, was on the team.

Said Martin of Babichuk, “Corey’s a really calm guy on the back end. He’s one of, if not the best skaters in the league. He thinks the game quickly and is very opportunistic.”

Speaking of the AJHL compared to his former stomping grounds in the BCHL, the d-man, who had a shift as a forward late in the game seeking his hat trick goal, noted the leagues do have similarities, save for one factor - the bump-and-grind game.

“B.C. probably isn't as physical as here in Alberta, but there are more similarities than people think,” he commented. “They both have fast, high-paced games and for us espe-cially, we play a lot like teams in B.C., especially with the way we move the puck.”

Speaking of moving the puck, that’s one thing Balbichuk, an RPI college-commit, does well whether it’s head-manning the puck out of the defensive zone or simply carrying it up-ice himself. He says he’s enjoying the freedom the coaching staff has given him in that regard this season.

“It’s kind of the same for all the D. We’re encouraged to contribute offensively, be the fourth man in the rush which is huge nowadays. It’s not just me, it’s all the D and we’re just trying to take advantage of it,” he explained, downplaying his skating and puck moving ability a bit.

As to making a move from one league to another in his final year of junior, Babichuk said he’s delighted he ended up in Spruce Grove, even given that the winter here is go-ing to be a bit nastier than what he would have faced in West Kelowna.

“Obviously, it’s close to home for me. I get to live at home and that;s fantastic,” after two in Surrey before being moved to West Kelowna and then the Saints this year. “I grew up watching the Saints. It’s just an  honour to put on the jersey every night,” some-thing the Saints’ brass feel about the reverse.

In the games earlier in the week, the Saints got their only goal from Logan Ganie in the loss while Dylan Bourlai, Cam Mitchell and Alex Dalton, with the winner, had the markers in the win over Fort McMurray.

The Saints are home again on Friday, Oct. 19, when they open a home-and-home series with another improved club, the Sherwood Park Crusaders. Game time is 7 p.m. at the Grant Fuhr Arena. Tickets are available at the door or online at sprucegrovesaints.ca.

Photo By Dave Ross

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