Saints strong in two key wins over weekend…
And that, folks, is what it’s going to take to win in the playoffs.
The Spruce Grove Saints put together five great periods of hockey out of six over the weekend, as they took both games they played. They started with a 5-4 shoot-out win over the Bonnyville Pontiacs then rode the play of their special teams to an exciting 4-2 win over the Lloydminster Bobcats.
The opener in Bonnyville, saw the Pontiacs jump to a 2-0 first period lead but that was it for anything other than strong play by the Saints. They rebounded to tie it at three, fell behind 4-3 before tying it late in regulation. In the shoot-out, defenceman Ian Mitchell scored the only goal to let the Saints leave town with the win.
The next night, at home, the Saints got the type of start they’ve been looking for, jumping to a 2-0 lead after two periods. With the game at 2-1 Saints early in the third, super pest Austin Hunter drove the Bobcats crazy with his robust style of play setting up a power play marker that proved to be the game-winner.
“Special teams are always a big part of it, especially in tight games when there’s not a lot of chances 5-on-5,” Saints head coach Jason McKee said after the Saints went 2-for-7 with the extra man although their puck possession was outstanding. Lloydminster was 1-for-4 with an extra skater, but that marker came when they trailed by three, with just over a minute left.
***Saints Tyler Busch controlling the puck and the play versus Lloydminster behind the net.
“Special teams are always going to be a difference maker. The biggest part of the game was when they scored early in the third (to make it 2-1 Saints) and we came back right away with a power play goal to make it 3-1.”
With the Pontiacs and the Bobcats as two of the five teams that could possibly challenge for the North Division title this year, McKee was pleased with how well his team showed in the games – maybe other than that first period of the first game. As for the Lloydminster game, he had no complaints going forward after the win.
“They’re a good team there’s no question about that,” he said of the big, hard-skating, hard-hitting hosts of this year’s RBC national championship. “Tonight was a really good test, this weekend. We battled, we competed tonight. We played a really good game and our discipline was good, for the most part.
“Like I said last weekend going into this they’d be playoff-style games against very good opponents.”
***Nic Correale working hard against the end wall versus the Bobcats
One key element in the second win was the play of forward Austin Hunter, the prototypical guy that you love to have on your team but hate to play against. He had Lloydminster’s players looking to put some hurt on him – and he did take a solid shot to the head in the third period which resulted in a Saints power play, and the winning goal. But, he and his coach noted afterwards, that’s the way he plays the game.
“I try to play hard. Playing hard between the whistles is what gets teams,” Hunter said, noting he did take a bad penalty that his mates killed off, just before he got levelled with the hit to the head. That ensuing power play goal was the eventual difference in the game . “I owed my team. You’re going to taks some hacks and stuff but it’s worth it because tonight we got the win.”
McKee agreed that Hunter is the guy teams love to hate and as such he rises to the occasion more often than not.
“The bigger the game the better he plays,” McKee said of the bowling-ball style attitude Hunter takes onto the ice. “He’s an honest player. He plays hard and he’s difficult to play against. Every team wants a guy like that and we’re fortunate to have him.”
As for the two wins, Hunter said they were key.
“It was a really big building block for us this weekend. Those are two of the top teams in the North and it’s teams like that we have to beat to get where we want to be. It just shows the boys in the room what it takes to get there.”
Scoring for the Saints in Bonnyville, besides Mitchell, were Tyler Busch (2), Hunter, and Nicolas Correale while Matthew Murray had the win in goal.
Against the Bobcats goals came from Dexter McLeod, Taylor Crunk, Jordan Thomas (both on the power play 36 seconds apart in the final period) and Ryan Cox while Murray picked up his 13th win of the year, one shy of the total number of W’s he had last season.
***Matt Murray seen here making one of many saves vs. Lloydminster for his 13th victory of the season.
The Saints are away from home until Dec. 11, when they host the Grande Prairie Storm at the Grant Fuhr Arena.