After strong run, Saints enter break on down note
By Gord Montgomery
Somehow it seemed almost fitting that the Sherwood Park Crusaders and the Grinch Who Stole Christmas wear similar shades of green and black
. After all, the Cru played the Grinch to the Spruce Grove Saints in the halos last outing before the Christmas break, skating away with a 3-1 win at the Grant Fuhr Arena. That loss left the Saints bench boss Jason MacKee far from being in the holiday spirit, even a day after the game.
He mentioned, more than once, that after a solid team effort in a 2-1 victory in the Park the night before, not everyone showed up to play this game. He didn’t think his team looked at the rematch as an easy win but rather it was simply a case of not everyone playing as hard as was needed to win.
***Saints defensemen Connor James fights off the back check of a Crusader player
“We didn’t play well,” he said about the loss, where the Park dominated the first two periods and held a 3-0 lead after 40 minutes. “We played a pretty solid game in the Park on Friday but like you said, we had a lot of passengers (on Saturday). We got ourselves behind the 8-ball and couldn’t fight our way back. The Park was dialled in and the better team.”
MacKee gave full credit to the Crusaders, who always play the Saints tough whether in the regular season or the playoffs. He noted their goaltender, Zac Klassen, made the stops he had to, especially in the third period when the Saints came alive out-shooting the Cru 23-5. But MacKee noted, only playing 20 good minutes doesn’t cut it in the AJHL North.
***Crusader Goalie Zac Klassen makes a save in tight on Saints forward Josh Harris
“At the end of the day they (Cru) were the better team on that night and they deserved to win. Obviously it was a real disappointing way for us to enter the break.”
Even though the Saints have dominated the win side of the ledger against their closest rivals for most of the past while, MacKee felt his team wasn’t under-estimating the talent on the other side of the rink.
“We knew they were a good team. It was a grind to win on Friday and it took a late, short-handed goal to win. We knew what to expect. I was disappointed in our maturity as a group. We had five or six guys who played hard from start to finish and a bunch of passengers who maybe joined in in the third.”
The Park built their early lead on a good forecheck and two nice goals, the first on a spin move in the slot by Darcy Zaharichuk who threaded the needle to beat Grove goalie Garrett Mason while on the power play. The same line struck again for the Cru’s second goal just over three minutes later when Ryan Kruper scored. Before the Saints eventually hit the scoreboard in the final period the Cru were up by three after Ty Readman scored the lone second period goal.
Colton Leiter made things a bit more interesting with a great breakaway marker midway through the final period when the teams were playing 4-on-4 but that was it for offence on the night for the Saints.
Despite the loss, MacKee did find a silver lining of sorts in this game.
“For us, looking back at that game, it definitely has to give us motivation going into the new year,” he said of the Saints being off until Jan. 2. “I think we recognize how tight everything is, and how important every game is. I’m not faulting everyone for the loss. There were five or six guys who deserved a better fate but when you only have 30 per cent of your roster performing the way you’d like, you’re not going to get the result you want.”
That one game aside, and a brutal road schedule in December now done, MacKee noted he has been pleased for the most part with his team’s showing so far and their first place overall standing.
“It has been good,” he began. “At the start of the year you never know how things are going to go. We found ways to win games and stayed healthy for the first part of the year but the for the last six weeks here we went through some adversity, which is a good thing. I think it makes you stronger to learn how to deal with it and move forward. We definitely have had our fair share (of injuries) the last six weeks but we’ve handled it pretty good. We’ve found ways to get points.
***Saints #23 Jack Hamly & #12 Cooner Lukan pu the squeeze on an unidentified Crusader player
“As disappointing as our last game was, if you look at the year from the start, we’ve put ourselves in a good spot going forward.”
Now that the Grinch had left town and the Saints are on a break, MacKee said it is a good time for the players to have some down time. For the past couple of years the Saints have been in the midst of a win streak and thus the break wasn’t always at an opportune time. That’s not the case this year.
“For sure. We’ve played a lot of hockey and travelled a lot of miles. It is a situation physically where we need some rest and mentally as well. We’ve played over half of our games but message-wise, it’s not going to get easier as we move forward. We’ve got to enjoy our time off and I think every player needs that to spend time with friends and family but when we get back I think the message is pretty strong how we want to approach the new year. I have full confidence our guys will rebound well.”
And hopefully, there won’t be any more lumps of coal,to be handed the Saints, Grinch or no Grinch, once they resume skating in January. *
Photos by Dave Ross