Saints stay on track for first overall
The one thing a hockey team looks for every game is a quick start. That is exactly what the Spruce Grove Saints got over the past week in picking up two important wins.
The Saints kicked the long weekend off with a convincing 7-0 win over the Drayton Valley Thunder and followed that with a 2-1 victory over the Whitecourt Wolverines in front of their biggest home crowd of the season in the Grove.
In both games, the Saints jumped to 2-0 first period leads and then counted on defence and goaltending to up their lead in the AJHL North Division to 11 points over the Lloydminster Bobcats. It also allowed them to stay three up on the Brooks Bandits in the chase for first place overall in the league.
Speaking after the Family Day win against the Wolverines, who are a big, tough, hard-skating opponent, Saints d-man Ian Mitchell said his side went in with a solid game plan that worked to perfection.
“We played a man-on-man style where it’s really important that everyone sticks to their guy,” Mitchell, who was named the game’s first star by FastHockey’s play-by-play guys Tom Strangward and Chad Coughlin, explained. “As long as we’re winning those one-on-one battles we’ll be fine in our D-zone with obviously a very skilled team over there in Whitecourt. I thought we did a really good job with that.”
They were so good in fact that the only time the Wolverines did score was on the power play and that was only due to a bad break on a clearing shot that hit a skate in front of the Grove goal, bouncing to an opponent. That though was the only shot to beat Matthew Murray, the official AJHL First Star, who was solid stopping 27 of the 28 shots he saw.
At the other end, former Saint Garrett Mason was also sharp as he faced 38 shots but one each by Riley Simpson and Brendan Holterhus that eluded him in the first were enough to spell the difference.
Mitchell agreed it’s a tough night’s work holding back such big forwards, but the Saints defence has become accustomed to that and know how to deal with it.
“We have to learn to play against them (bigger forwards) and so far we’ve done a pretty good job. I think the biggest thing (to keeping such players off-balance) is quick puck movement and making simple plays. If we hold onto pucks too long it plays right into their hands. They’re bigger guys, they get in on the forecheck, bang bodies, but as long as we’re getting pucks by and having good breakouts, that’s key for us.”
Head coach Jason McKee said while the Family Day affair was a big win, it’s not any more important than any other game in a long season.
“For us, each game is its own game. Regardless of the opponent you’re trying to win and it’s worth two points. I thought our guys really gutted it out in the third and found a way to win. We’re happy with the win and we move on from there.”
He did note however that the Saints sort of got out of rhythm in the second period after out-shooting Whitecourt 17-2 in the first. The Wolverines scored the only goal of the middle frame as they out-shot the Saints 17-13.
“Turning pucks over, he summarized the problems of the sandwich frame. “You turn pucks over in danger areas, like we did in the Grade A areas, and they had some really good chances. Matt made some really good saves but even with those good saves you’re giving up so momentum. We talked about it between (second and third) periods and I thought we were a lot better in not turning pucks over in those danger areas,” in the third.
Both player and coach admitted that with only five games left in the final two weeks of the regular season, that gives them a bit of a break headed into the post-season.
“We’ve had our tough times as a team with playing a lot of games in a short period of time,” McKee said. “We have some time between games to work on things and that’s a big thing. We’re a team that thrives on practice time so the rest and time to practice is a good thing for us and we’ll continue to push forward.”
Of the scheduling break they’re seeing, Mitchell noted, “I think in January we had a real-ly busy schedule. It’s nice to have a bit of a break here. We’ve got some guys that are a little banged up and you want to get those guys healed up a bit, not miss as many games with a really packed schedule. I think it’s a good thing having a bit of a break. I think that will be important. The last part is going to be a grind and we need to have all 25 guys on deck.”
In the win over Drayton, Ravi Dattani continued his fine play since coming to the Saints, as he picked up his eighth win and second shutout in nine games. Scoring singles were Josh Harris, Colton Leiter, Jordan Thomas, Riley Simpson, Scott Ferguson and Tyler Busch.
The Saints are at home on Saturday, Feb. 20 vs Sherwood Park at 7pm, and Sunday Feb. 21st vs Olds Grizzlys at 2pm.