Saints back in familiar playoff territory
This is, without doubt, where the Spruce Grove Saints figure they belong — the AJHL’s North Division championship round and the semi-final round of the league’s post-season.
The Saints, making use of every player on their roster, skated to a convincing sweep of the Sherwood Park Crusaders in what was their first round of action in the playoffs after earning a bye from finishing atop the North, and the league’s, regular season standings.
While there may have been expectations of rust in the Saints game coming off an almost three week layoff, there was none of that evident in the 4-0 series sweep, where they out-scored their rivals to the tune of 23-5 (7-1; 6-1; 7-3 and 3-0).
Head coach Jason McKee agreed that a key to this series win, and hopefully more in the future, is having everyone on the same page right from the front to back.
“I think we were able to get guys back from injury which gave us a little more depth throughout our lineup. I thought our team did a really good job of breaking their forecheck which was a key to the series. And then we did a good job of jumping up into the play and bringing a second wave of offence from behind. Our group of forwards did a good job of creating opportunities throughout the series from line to line and we’ll have to continue with that moving forward.”
Of the scoring output, McKee was, needless to say, delighted. He had reason to be as against the Park all but one member of the Saints earned at least one point over the four games, allowing McKee to keep rolling his four lines.
***The Saints Brandon Biro led the club in scoringin the 1st roundd with 8 pts. on 4 goals. Every Saint with the exception of 1 had a point in the Saints opening round
“It was nice to get everyone involved. Grow some confidence going into the playoffs as some of our guys haven’t been involved in the playoffs before. Obviously the guys that have experience came in and led the way for us, so we’re real happy with how the first round went, top to bottom.”
While the Crusaders came into the series on a high after taking out Bonnyville in their opening best-of-five series, they weren’t able to maintain their flow against the Saints. The fact the games were hard-hitting, and at times overly testy, was a good indicator for his club going forward of how the rest of the post-season is likely to play out, the Grove bench boss agreed.
“Once you get in (to the playoffs) everyone feels they have a chance and rightfully so. For us, we’re no different and it’s just going to be natural in the playoffs that the intensity gets higher and higher as we go on. We didn’t see anything we didn’t expect (against the Park). I thought our guys handled all the situations well throughout the series and we were able to push forward no matter what was thrown at us.” Now headed into a best-of-seven with the RBC hosts this year, the Lloydminster Bobcats who swept aside the Whitecourt Wolverines, McKee knows this too is going to be a battle. Interestingly enough, both clubs enter on eight-game win streaks — the ‘Cats have won seven straight playoff games plus their last regular season game while the Saints won their first four in playoffs and their last four regular season contests. That simply means starting Friday, something has to give.
Goaltending provied by Ravi Dattani (shown here) and Matt Murray who recordeda shutout in the 4th and deciding game, has been strong for the Saints thus far in the post season.
Both teams come into this series well rested. The Bobcats will be coming off a nine-day layoff, the Saints one day less. McKee though doesn’t see that affecting the level of play as this round of the post-season begins.
“I think both teams needed the break. Our series was very physical and I’d imagine the other one was too. I think both teams were looking forward to having a little time to rest and prepare for each other. I think it’s probably a pretty even playing field coming into Game 1.”
That game goes Friday, April 1, at 7 p.m. at the Grant Fuhr Arena. The second game is the next night, same time, same place. The third and fourth games will be in Lloydminster and if the series goes five games, that contest will go Friday, April 8 in the Grove.
* Photos by Dave Ross