Road games tiring but record doesn’t reflect that
By Gord Montgomery
Were the Spruce Grove Saints travelling to all their recent road games by airplane, rather than bus, they’d all be elite members of the Frequent Flyers Club. That though isn’t the case, so while their reward for all those miles travelled hasn’t been an upgrade in seat status it has kept them in First Class in the league standing.
The Saints maintained their hold on top spot in both the North Division, and overall race in the AJHL. During the past month, they had a stretch of playing nine of their last 11 games in foreign territory, although one of those was a “home” game played n Swan Hills.
Even given that schedule, the Saints came away with a virtually unblemished record, picking up points in every one of those games save one, a regulation time loss in Brooks. They also suffered two other losses, albeit in shootouts, so needless to say, everyone was quite pleased in taking 14 of a possible 18 points during that stretch.
“It’s been OK so far,” head coach Jason McKee noted of the scheduling nightmare the Saints have been going through, where they’ve been as far south as Brooks and as far north as Fort McMurray. “Obviously you’d like to have a little bit more balance but we’re getting through it and in the second half of the year we’re going to have a few more home dates which I think is an advantage for us. There are going to be good parts and bad parts of your schedule, that’s just part of it. Right now it hasn’t been so much being on the road, it’s the distance between where we’ve had to go. We’ve been all over but the guys have handled it well.”
Saints d-man Macklin Pichonsky noted after the club’s 4-2 win over Grande Prairie — on home ice no less — that this stretch has been tough but he agreed with his coach that this is all part of the deal of playing in the AJ. He said that with the depth the club has this year, everyone has stepped up and played key roles in putting points on the board.
*** Saints defensemen Macklin Pichonsky takes to the air to gain position on Grande Prairie's forward thiw past Friday.***
That team buy-in, McKee attested, has been a key to the road success. With injuries, and players away at the World Jr. A Challenge, the league leaders have made use of every player they can, including some midget-aged call-ups who have performed well. That’s because of a simple game plan.
“I think for us the mentality we’ve had is we want to take our game and play it anywhere, whether it’s at home or any other rink in the AJHL, or on an outdoor rink,” McKee said. “Wherever we go or wherever we play, we want to make sure we’re playing the same way all the time.
“It takes some pressure off our guys that we don’t have to play a different style when we go on the road. Nothing changes and I think that consistency in our game plan helps.”
As for the guys on the disable list, and the trio of players in Ontario representing Western Canada, McKee said that has allowed others to take over the spotlight. Over the past weekend in their two wins over the Storm and the Oil Barons, one of those guys was goalie Garret Mason who had both wins. Another was recent addition Taylor Crunk, who had the fourth goal against the Storm to put that game away, and then scored the winner, and a hatty in Fort Mac the next night.
***New addition Taylor Crunk fends off a check and drives to the slot to create a scoring oppourtunity.***
“Everyone knew there’d be more (playing) minutes available and everyone’s done a good job of that,” said McKee. “We’ve just found ways to win in different ways. There have been some really big wins — last night in Fort McMurray was a big (6-1) win that took some pressure off the defensive side of the game. What’s been consistent, other than the Brooks game (a 6-1 loss), has been our team defence. It’s kept us in all those games and given us a chance to win.”
That part of the game, both Pichonsky and the coach agree, has to stay solid going forward. While this month is winding down, two of the Saints last three games prior to the holiday break are, you guessed it, on the road. They play in Whitecourt on Tuesday (Dec. 15) and the Park Friday before hosting the Crusaders on Saturday.
“Going forward defence is going to have to be a focal point for sure,” McKee continued. “After Christmas we’ll obviously get our World Jr. A guys back and then hopefully our other guys are healthy as well.”
***Saints dman Isaac Farrah gains postion and the puck on the Storms' Zablocki Friday night.***
Looking ahead, the schedule for the Saints in January is favourable with seven of their 12 games at home. The same thing is true in February, when they play their last five games of the season on home ice, with only three road trips.
“It’s fine,” the bench boss said as to this weird and whacky scheduling. “At the end of the day you’re going to play 60 games and there are going to be parts where you have the advantage and parts where the other guy has the advantage. With as tight as the league, and our division especially has been, it’s nice to know you’re going to be playing in front of your home fans more than the other teams.
“We’ve definitely put in a lot of miles and have had a lot of wins on the road so far. We’re going to have to continue to do that in the second half but like you said, it is nice to have in the back of your mind you’re going to be playing at home more than on the road.”
***Saints new tender GArrett Mason is making the most of his time between the twine with Matt Murray gone to the WJAC. Here he tracks the puch while defensemen Cole Nicolson looks on.***
And as for those non-available Frequent Flyer miles? It would be nice to get some reward for the time spent on the bus, McKee laughingly agreed, but then again, the points gained help make up for all those miles travelled regardless of the fact they’re in a bus seat rather than an airplane stall.
The Saints final home game prior to the league’s Christmas break goes on Saturday (Dec. 19) at 7 p.m. at the Grant Fuhr Arena against Sherwood Park. This is Fill the Net Night, where fans are asked to bring a non-perishable food item with them. All goods received will be donated to the Parkland Food Bank, helping everyone have a merrier Christmas.
*Photos by Dave Ross