Guts, determination pave road to final for Saints
After six pre-season games, 60 regular season contests, nine more playoff battles and innumerable practice sessions in between, the Spruce Grove Saints find themselves exactly where they planned to be all along — the AJHL’s Gas Drive Cup Championship.
The Saints, thanks to the talents of some vets and a rookie who has found his stride in the post-season, finally did away with the challenge the Lloydminster Bobcats presented with an exciting 4-1 win to take their North Division Championship four games to one.
The critical win was keyed by veterans Jake Mykitiak who netted two goals and added an assist and Brandon Biro with three helpers, while rookie Trey Fix-Wolanski continued with is hot hand in the post-season, added an assist and potted the final goal that sealed the ‘Cats fate. To top all that off, captain Tyler Busch was a one-man scoring chance wrecking crew against the ‘Cats, as he repeatedly blocked shots, especially late in the game that could well have paved the way toward a different end had they gotten through to the net.
*** Jake Mykitiuk was the big gun for the Saints in the clinching win over Lloydminster, picking up two goals including the game winner, and adding an assist in the 4-1 win.
About the only thing that was more plentiful than smiles in the Saints dressing room after the clinching victory were ice bags. The Saints are ravaged by bumps, bruises and injuries following the physical series with Lloydminster. To play through that pain and come out on top is true testament to the character of this club, said bench boss Jason McKee.
Right off the top, he agreed his penalty killing units were a big reason for the wins. The Saints were perfect in negating 15 Lloydminster power play situations over the five games.
“It was a real big part of our game,” McKee said before speaking about what likely was the tensest time in the entire series, being two men short for four minutes in the waning moments of Game 5.
“To kill four minutes at the end, 6-on-4 (with the Bobcats goaltender pulled for an extra skater), two back-to-backers like that is a difficult thing to do. There’s not much more you can do than put yourself in lanes and guys put themselves in vulnerable spots. They paid the price to win the hockey game. Congrats to those kids. It was a hard fought series and there are a lot of ice bags in there. They paid the price to win. I’m very, very proud of how we were able to come through this one.”
*** The going was tough in all areas of the ice, including in front of the opposition net, but the Saints kept pushing forward and ended up capturing the North Division title on four game and moving onto the league finals again.
Speaking of proud, McKee said the choice to make Busch the team captain this year proved to be the right one as the veteran, who leaves after this year for university hockey, led by example. Interestingly enough, Busch has done nothing but win since he pulled on a Saints jersey and now goes after this third consecutive AJHL title.
“He’s the heartbeat of our team. He’s the true leader,” McKee emphatically stated when asked about the forward’s play, including blocking those shots in the dying minutes. “You know, Parker (Mackay) was that last year and Tyler’s picked up right where he left off. We’ve been fortunate to have some great captains over the years, and to put his body on the line like that to win, like I said, he knew it was coming and he didn’t shy away from it. He’s the most dedicated player in our league for a reason.”
Speaking outside the noisy dressing room after the win, Busch said it was the commitment to detail by the entire team that led them to this point.
“It’s playoff hockey is what it is. It’s not easy to win. You have to put your body on the line. A lot of guys are playing hurt and that shows a lot about our leadership group. Our core kind of took over tonight and everyone else followed.”
Playing hurt and facing a tough, physically aggressive team that had handed his squad a thumping in Game 4, Busch said everyone just regrouped and got back on the same page in the clinching contest.
“It’s not easy especially when you lose. We just couldn’t worry about it so we just put it behind us in preparation for this game,” he said of the only loss they suffered in the series when they fell 6-1. “We came out and battled hard.”
***Goaltender Matt Murray was sharp in Game #5, stopping all but one of 25 shots. He picked up three of the team's four wins in the North Division Final.
Now, faced with arresting the Brooks Bandits who are unbeaten so far this post-season, McKee said he expects an even faster style of hockey to be played in the best-of-seven final. The teams are similar in structure and as such finished only two points apart in the regular season standings. “Not that this wasn’t a fast-paced series, but Brooks has a lot of skill,” said McKee. “I think they’re probably the deepest group in the league and they’re going to play with a lot of pace. We’re going to have to make sure we play with a lot of pace as well. That will be a big part of it. I think it will still be physical in the series but I think the pace will be high and we’ll have to make some decisions awfully quick with pucks. They’re a very aggressive team.”
Asked to explain the feeling in the dressing room after the series win, Busch said everyone was enjoying the moment but that’s what it was – a moment to reflect before moving on to what’s ahead.
*** Brandon Biro continued his superb post-season play in the Lloydminster series, chipping in with three assists in the final game to earn the Game Star nod for his club.
“We’re enjoying it. We’re just taking each series one game at a time. We’ll enjoy this right now and get ready for Brooks. We haven’t done much video preparation on them but we know they’re a fast team, highly skilled. It’s going to be a good series.”
And that final series, with the same two teams that squared off in the final last year, begins in the Grove at the Grant Fuhr Arena on Friday, April 15 at 7 p.m. The same two teams go at it the next night, same time, same place before shifting to Brooks for Games 3 and 4 on Monday and Tuesday.
If needed, the fifth game goes Friday, April 22. Game 6 is slated for Brooks on Sunday, April 24 and if a seventh game is needed to decide a winner, it again goes in the Grove on Tuesday, April 26 at 7 p.m.
* Photos by Dave Ross