Saints stretch North lead with another winning weekend
By Gord Montgomery
With an opportunity to build a 5-point lead atop the AJHL’s North Division standings, the Spruce Grove Saints went looking to further bury their closest rivals, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, when they squared off against the Lloydminster Bobcats. The problem was, at least early on, the Saints forgot to bring their shovels to work.
The Saints found themselves in a 2-0 hole in the opening period, but they were able to regroup and dig their way out, skating to a 3-2 win ahead of their last meeting of the season with the MOB.
After the game, that was totally dominated by the Saints other than on the scoreboard, head coach Bram Stephen and rookie forward Cam Mitchell both said despite being down early there was no panic in the Saints locker room.
“We had a couple of little mistakes at the start of the game and got down 2-0 but we stuck to our game plan and battled back. No one gets down. Everyone stays positive, helps each other out,” Mitchell said about panic not setting in. “There’s a great attitude in the dressing room and on the bench.”
In looking back at what transpired in the win, Stephen indicated he couldn’t be unhappy with his team’s efforts, considering they outshot the ‘Cats to the tune of 54-16, including 20-5 in the final 20 minutes. Although there were those first few shaky moments.
“I wouldn’t say it was a slow start as much as undisciplined play,” the bench boss said of his squad taking a couple of early minors and then no more for the rest of the game. “Bad penalties, turnovers, things like that,” that cost the Saints a power play goal and a shorty in falling behind. “We just spent a large part of the first six minutes on the penalty kill and it’s a little hard to get guys into the game. But once we got going it was a bit better. I actually thought it was a pretty good hockey game by both teams, honestly. It wasn’t necessarily the best game for fans. It wasn’t filled with a lot of exciting moments but that’s the style Lloydminster plays. We stuck to our game plan pretty well.”
In sticking to Plan A, the Saints limited Lloydminster to few offensive chances following the two goals, but even still, goalie Nolan Kent had to turn away a couple of decent scor-ing chances. At the other end,, tender Bailey Brkin was outstanding fort the ‘Cats, and kept them in the one-sided affair.
“We need to finish a bit more,” the Saints bench boss commented. “We had chances to pop a couple, three more in, but, yeah, I liked how we moved the puck around in the of-fensive zone and how quickly we closed or transitioned in the neutral zone,” which is a key to how the Saints often take over games after the opening period.
“It forces them into long shifts,” Stephen said of the opposition who on this night spent lots of time chasing the puck in their own end. “That makes it tough for them to have the energy they had in the first,” Stephen ended.
After falling behind the Saints got a late first period goal from Josh Harris to spark the comeback. In the second, Chris Van Os-Shaw tied the game and then Mitchell potted the winner.
About Kent playing his fourth consecutive game since returning from injury, Stephen said that was being done to get him into game shape as the playoffs near. That doesn’t mean though that Hayden Missler won’t see any action for the rest of the season, although the coach cautioned, “Miss will get time but I don’t want to make any promises.”
Big win up north
On Family Day, the Saints travelled to Fort McMurray, shovels in hand, as they went to work on burying any hope the MOB had of claiming top spot in the North. And once on the ice, the Saints were all business, as they buried their hosts 5-1 to move seven points up with five games left in the season.
The big gun, again, for the Saints was Van Os-Shaw, who netted a pair including the game-winner, while singles came from Parker Saretsky, Harris and Parmiter.
As the season winds down, Mitchell said after the Lloydminster game he can’t wait to get his first taste of on-ice playoff action with the Saints. As a youngster, his family billeted Saints in the past, so he’s familiar with the excitement, as a fan at least, that fills the Grant Fuhr Arena at this time of year.
“It’s amazing. I grew up watching the Saints and watching all kinds of playoff games. I’m so happy to be here!” he stated.
The Saints look to be well on their way to wrapping up the important first-round bye in the post-season as with five games left, and that seven point lead, they only need a combination of two more wins, two Fort McMurray losses or one win and one McMurray loss.
The Saints are at home for their last regular season game on Friday, March 2 against the Sherwood Park Crusaders hoping by that time to have wrapped things up in the North Division.
*Photos by Dave Ross