Quick start to a long, long race for the Saints
In hockey it’s an old adage that states the season is a marathon, not a sprint. Thus, the perfect 7-0 start the Spruce Grove Saints have had means that while they’ve quickly left some teams in the dust out of the starting blocks, there is still time for those pursuers to run the race leaders down.
Saints head coach Jason Mckee agreed that while the start for his team has been nice, it is far too early in the year to get too hyped about what’s happened to date.
“I’ve said in years past this is just a snapshot of the season. You want to have success early and build confidence and that’s been nice for sure. But teams are going to get better as we go, as are we, but as the season goes on you have a better idea where you’re at and where your competition is at. But yeah, I believe it’s too early right now (to be too excited).”
Saying that, McKee pointed to the schedule this coming week that sees them in Lloydminster (Sept. 29) against the Bobcats who are also unbeaten to this point of the season. They follow that up with the Showcase Weekend in Camrose, where they hook up with Brooks and Olds.
In the early part of this season the entire roster has done its part in putting the wins in the books. In the opening weekend in Fort McMurray it was special teams play that helped them to a two-game sweep and since then it’s been the offence.
“We’ve done a lot better job in the details of how to create offence in this league,” McKee stated about his club that has 38 goals for in seven games. “The strength of our team going in, I thought, would be our defence and our goaltending,” and that’s shown as they have allowed only 10 goals against thus far.
“We returned five D’s and two goalies, so I expected those guys to come in for us and be really solid for us, especially in the early going. That’s allowed some of our younger forwards to grow so I think it’s been a combination of things from week to week and we’re just trying to put it all together right now.”
Since coming in as the head coach of the Saints, McKee has lived by the premise that it takes rookies in the AJHL 20 games or so to adjust to the level of play as well as the speed. This year though, maybe just maybe, the youngsters on the team are slightly ahead of the curve in that timetable.
“It’s that 10 to 20, 15, that kind of range,” the coach noted about sticking pretty close to the same timeline. “I think our returning guys have really done a good job carrying a lot of the play, playing a lot of important minutes and our younger guys are working into that.”
That thought doesn’t mean though the coaches are totally satisfied with what the rookies have done on the ice so far.
“There’s some inconsistencies in their game for sure, with the group of forwards and we want to see more consistency from that group,” he said. “Eventually, hopefully, they’ll create a few more offensive opportunities as well. Most importantly, they’re defending well and picking up what we’re trying to do. It’s not an easy jump. It’s going to be a little overwhelming for the first month, month-and-a-half, but as things slow down for them I think they’ll get more confident and showcase the type of players they can be.”
In looking ahead a bit, although a marathon runner never wants to get too far ahead of himself, McKee said the games this coming week, and in particular the one in Lloydminster, are no bigger, or smaller, than any other at this time of year.
“There will be nothing won or lost on Tuesday night, other than a game. There will still be 50-some games left to go, but at the same time it’s always nice to know where you stack up. We played well this weekend against two really good teams (wins of 8-0 over Bonnyville and 4-2 over Sherwood Park) and we’ve got some really good teams coming up. There’s a lot of parity in our league and the North Division where we play the most of our games is extremely competitive. Anyone can win on any given night and we’re in that mix.”
So far there haven’t been any mixed results with the Saints. They are off to one of their best early starts in years and have shown they can win on the road, at home, and in games that are held up by unexpected events, such as the Bonnyville game. A Zamboni breakdown at the Grant Fuhr Arena, just prior to the start of the contest, pushed the game back at least 30 minutes and when it did start, it was done on ice that wasn’t cleaned.
That issue affected both teams, McKee diplomatically suggested, but it appears the Saints weathered the delay far better than the Pontiacs. In the victory, the Saints scored three in the first period, two more in the middle frame and three more to wrap things up. And all of that came after the home team muscled up to push the stalled ice cleaning beast off the ice – from the far end of the rink.
The Grove coach said his players did a good job staying loose and ready to go thanks in large part to being in their home barn.
“Both teams knew it wasn’t going to be great ice out there and there were definitely obstacles to overcome,” he commented. “But that was out of anyone’s control. You just have to deal with it and move on. I thought our guys did a good job, kept it really simple, advance zones and got pucks on net and that’s what we wanted. Getting the lead helped too.
“It wasn’t great but it was at home so we did have the comforts of our own fans who kind of helped us through a different time, for sure. Full marks to our guys. They handled it well,” just like they’ve handled the teams that made a charge at them but have yet to catch them as of yet, thanks to a fast start in what is a season long race.
*Gord Montgomery is the former Sports Editor of the Spruce Grove Examiner/Stony Plain Reporter