Two more wins, and with some help from their “friends”, the Saints take another regular season title
If it’s been said once it’s been said a hundred times in the dressing room of the Spruce Grove Saints — “The playoffs run through Spruce Grove.”
That is once again the case as for the third year in a row, and the sixth time in the past eight years, the Saints finished the regular AJHL season as the No. 1 seed.
The Saints clinched the Dave Duchak Trophy on the weekend, when they won two games, blasting Drayton Valley 7-0 and Canmore 6-3. The Saints nearest rival and the only team still in the hunt for the regular season champioinship, the Brooks Bandits, were robbed of that opportunity when they lost 3-2 to Sherwood Park and 5-2 to Lloydminster.
While the Bandits could still finish the year with the same number of points as the Saints, 100, but with more wins they still can’t finish on top. The reason for that is the first tie-breaker, the number of wins, some which were in shootouts for the Bandits and which don’t work into the final numbers.
As for the Saints getting to the top — yet again — it wasn’t without a few wobbles. The clinching game for them was an exact case of that, as they built up a quick 5-0 lead over Canmore but then saw the Eagles score three straight times to narrow the gap.
“I think you want to play the same game all the time regardless of the score. This week in practice we’d worked a lot on the compete, things like that. We were better at things like that,” coach Jason McKee began in relation to those problem areas the Saints have had.
“This coming week we’ve got to work on some of our structure; there were some holes in our game. We just didn’t have everybody on the same page, guys in the right spot at the same time,” McKee said of the latest lapse late in the second period and early in the third. “It’s nice to have another week of practice,” before their final regular season game against Camrose. “I’m a big believer in getting better every day.”
The Eagles got momentum when they took advantage of a Saints clearing pass from the defensive zone that’s worked dozens of times before. This time it didn’t as the forechecker batted the puck out of the air and walked in alone to beat Matthew Murray.
To that play, McKee said, “We tried to go through the seam and their player made a good read, obviously. Give credit to their guy; he made a real good read and a good shot.”
Once the Eagles started rolling they looked like a different team than they had in the first 33 minutes. After the second period goal they scored twice in the third period and chased Murray from the Grove net by the 3:23 mark.
Speaking to the issue of letting teams back into games, something that has haunted the Saints on occasion this year, team captain Tyler Busch said even though it’s late in the year this is still a work in progress.
“I think we’re progressively getting better at closing out games. It’s just little breakdowns, losing a battle here and there. As a veteran guy and a leader on the team you just have to make sure everyone cleans that up and are ready to battle every shift, no matter what the score is.”
Brandon Biro eventually grounded the Eagles for good when he made a terrific play to up the lead to 6-3 with his third of the night, and as it turned out set up yet another regular season championship.
Asked what it’s like to play alongside Biro who has 57 points in 40 games, Busch raved about his teammate.
“He’s a heck of a player. He sees the ice well and he’s really smart. He plays a lot bigger than his size. He’s a puck hound and he can get it to me where I can make plays and we feed off each other pretty well,” said Busch, who has 68 points in 52 games.
With a relaxed game schedule over the next three weeks, with only the final league game remaining and then lots of practice time, Busch said it’s up to him and the other vets to keep the first-year players sharp as they await the post-season. And he noted, health trumps everything at this time of the year.
“I think for us, we need to get healthy again. We’ve got a few injured guys. As a veteran guy, I just have to make sure everyone’s ready to practice every day because we’ve got some stuff to learn before heading into the playoffs.
“The break will be nice. It’s a long season where you work all year to get that first-round bye and we get rewarded with a little bit of time off here. We’ll make sure we work hard in practice because other teams are going to be playing and in game shape, so we’ve got to make sure we’re ready to go in Game 1,” of the playoffs, which once again will run through Spruce Grove.
The Saints first 2 playoff dates will be at home Friday March 18 and Saturday March 19th. Both game start at 7pm.
Saints playoff ticket packages can be purchased by going to the Saints website: sgsaints.com or by calling the Saints ticket office at 780-962-8995 ext.2