Saints take ‘Cats out of their comfort zone in opening game wins
In playoff hockey there’s nothing like taking the opposition out of their game plan and forcing them into yours. And that is exactly what the Spruce Grove Saints did to the Lloydminster Bobcats in the first two games of the AJHL North Division finals over the weekend.
The Saints, the league’s regular season champs and the defending AJHL champions, never let the ‘Cats take the lead in the two outings, out-scoring them 6-3 the first night and then 6-2 the next. As a result, they lead the best-of-seven series 2-0.
“I think some frustration set in. We defended really well tonight and I sensed some frustration,” Saints bench boss Jason McKee said after Game 2 about his team taking control of the action away from their opponents. “We got some power plays because of that,” and scored four times on eight opportunities after being held scoreless on three man-advantage situations the first night.
***By Skating away from stuff like this, the Saints have managed to put two wins in the books. That was evident in Game 2 when they scored four PP goals on eight chances.
“I really liked our game. We had some tough luck with injuries coming into this one, but we had guys step in and play extremely well.”
When asked about the game plan his team took into these games, Saints forward Scott Ferguson said they knew how good Lloydminster is, considering what lays ahead of that team this year as hosts of the national championship RBC Cup.
“We knew we had to play well. They’re a really good team and they’ve been preparing for this year for a couple of years now. They’re a very skilled team, a very solid team so we have to play a very detailed game,” said Ferguson, who teamed up with Austin Hunter and Conner Luken to drive the Bobcats over the edge, both in the hit parade and on the score sheet.
*** #15 Scott Ferguson and his linemates #14 Austin Hunter and #12 Conner Lukan combined for 8pts between them in the first two games of the North Division Final.
The Saints rode the two strong defensive efforts, good goaltending by both Matthew Murray and Ravi Dattani, and then went on goal-scoring sprees each night. In the opener the goals came from Hunter, Luken (with a great shot from behind the red line off the goaltender’s back and in), Brandon Biro (2), Jake Mykitiuk and Riley Simpson. The second game saw Nicolas Correale and Tyler Busch each pot two goals with Hunter and Mykitiuk netting the others.
Of the upscale tempo his line has shown so far in the playoffs, Ferguson said, “I think we all just have the same kind of mindset toward the game. The physical game we like to play takes a toll (on the opposition) over a seven-game series. We’re trying to bang bodies and pot the occasional goal, which helps out.”
What also helps out is scoring when the opponent gives you the opportunity. With his club cashing in at a 50 per cent ratio in Game 2 on the PP including the game-winner, McKee was a happy man.
“It was pretty nice,” he understated of those four consecutive goals with an extra skater. “It’s part of the playoffs,” and while that special team has run hot and cold for the Saints this season, it was extra hot on this night.
One big factor in the two wins, the coach continued, has been his team’s composure when faced with physical adversity.
“That’s always been a huge part of playoff hockey,” he said of keeping one’s composure. “It’s always been a huge strength of ours over the years. Guys have taken some shots for the betterment of the team and it’s what you have to do at this time of year. We’ve done a good job of controlling our emotions.”
*** #14 Austin Hunter continues to be a thorn in the sides of opponents during the post-season with his physical style of play.
What they’ve also done, this year and in the past, is win in the playoffs. For Ferguson, who joined the team around trade deadline time in January from Camrose, it’s an inclination he’s grown to appreciate inside the Saints’ dressing room doors.
“I think it’s just kind of the attitude that’s been built here — it’s a winning attitude,” he began in answering the question of the difference between teams he’s played for in the AJHL post-season past and present. “That’s not to say there’s a cockiness, but there is definitely a confidence that we come to the rink and that we’re going to win the game. I think one of the biggest differences is everyone has that experience of winning and that attitude of winning is probably the biggest thing.”
In closing, Ferguson noted he was surprised to be moved from his previous team but said he’s happy to have landed where he did. “It’s a great organization, a great team,” and he hopes to have a long post-season run with them in his final year of junior hockey.
And so far it’s been nothing but a perfect run as the Saints now have a six-game unbeaten steak in the playoffs.
The third and fourth games in the series go Monday and Tuesday in Lloydminster. If a fifth game is needed it will be played in the Grove on Friday, April 8 at the Grant Fuhr Arena starting at 7 p.m.
* Photos by Dave Ross