Something had to give in Saints/Brooks match-up
By Gord Montgomery
You knew something had to give when the Brooks Bandits and the Spruce Grove Saints squared off in the Grove on Saturday night. After all, the two teams had combined to take 42 of the possible 44 points their last 11 games combined, offered up. The Bandits came into this contest riding an 11-game win streak while the Saints had won 10 of their last 11.
And, in the end, the fans on hand got what they came for — and extremely entertaining playoff-style battle between two of the best teams in the AJHL this year — with the home side skating away with a 1-0 victory.
The game was scoreless until late in the third period, when Chase Olsen, who has been a valuable addition to the Saints since being picked up at the trade deadline, netted a shot from the slot to register the only goal of the game that was highlighted by strong de-fence and great goaltending at both ends of the ice.
Speaking afterwards, the Saints Nolan Kent who picked up the shutout in goal in only his second start since returning from a lengthy stint on the injured list, credited the de-fensive effort of his skaters in earning the zero.
“Guys were blocking shots, getting their sticks in the way, so it was fairly easy,” he stated. “A lot of the shots were perimeter shots and I had good sight lines for the most part.”
Kent continued by saying while the win was a big one for his club, it was also a big one personally, considering the opponent and the tight race the Saints find themselves in with Fort McMurray in the North Division.
“I felt way more comfortable in this game than the last one,” he said of dropping his re-turn engagement 5-3 to the Calgary Canucks. “The win was huge. This was a good test. Brooks is a very good team so it was good to beat them. Hopefully, in a couple of weeks,” when the Saints pay a return visit to the Bandits down south, “we can do the same.”
Coach Bram Stephen was cautious about getting too carried away with his praise for his club’s efforts, saying that while things came out the way they wanted not everything was picture-perfect.
“We played pretty well. We had good moments and not so good moments. I thought our goaltending was good. Our attention to detail in our own end was pretty good. When we were pushing them back we had more success than when we weren’t.”
He tempered those comments somewhat by stating, “We’ve got some things to clean up on the power play,” where the Saints were 0-for-4 while the Bandits were 0-for-3.
Of his goaltender’s play, Stephen said, “It was impressive. His second game back, the first one in his home rink there had to be some nerves. I thought he was cool, calm and composed … and he acted like a pro tonight. It was pretty impressive he was able to have a night like that so soon,” after coming back from a lower body injury.
Switching subjects and speaking to the the eight games left in the regular season, and their slim lead atop the North which now stands at two points, Stephen noted they have a tough road ahead to remain where they are in the standings.
“We’ve got lots of travel and some of the rinks we’re going to are tough to play in. Then we’ve got three (games) in four (days) to finish it off and that’s a little tough too. Start-ing tonight, we’ve got a tough grind. We try not to think of this as a marathon or a sprint but as a process,” where the club looks to play better each and every time out.
As for this particular win against one of the better teams in the league, Stephen agreed it was important without really saying that.
“The way we look at it is an opponent is an opportunity to test where we are. Different opponents give you different things,” and the short timeframe and schedule leading up to the end of the regular season are going to be tests of this team’s true mettle.
As for looking ahead, Kent was cautious about putting any sort of expectations on the club going toward the finish line.
“We just have to play our game, not worry about who we’re playing. It gets even tough-er in the playoffs when you play four games in five nights,” he said. “We’ve got to be ready for the road trips and have our bodies ready for the end of the season,” which is approaching at a rapid pace.
The Saints are home to Sherwood Park on Wednesday (Feb. 14) and Lloydminster on Saturday, Feb. 17 before hitting the road up to Fort McMurray on Feb. 19, then heading south to Drumheller and Brooks that weekend.
*Photos By Dave Ross