Saints hit the road with 2-game lead in North Final
By Gord Montgomery
Well, no one said this round was going to be easy.
After blowing the Grande Prairie Storm aside in straight games in their opening playoff series the Spruce Grove Saints suddenly found themselves in a battle with the Whitecourt Wolverines in Round 2 of the AJHL post-season. And while the Saints hold a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven affair, that advantage hasn’t come easily.
The Saints, who hold home ice advantage in the series, opened things up with a thrilling 3-2 OT win in Game 1 and then hung on to win Game 2 by a 4-3 count after building up a 4-1 lead.
Speaking about the trials and tribulations his team has faced in this round after cruising in the opening four games, out-scoring the Storm 28-2, bench boss Bram Stephen noted Whitecourt came into the series well prepared. They’d taken out Fort McMurray in seven games in their last series, with three of those games going extra time and many thought they’d be tired. That though, didn’t appear to be the case. As for the Saints, they were perhaps too well rested.
“We’d played four games in four weeks,” Stephen began about the two lengthy layoffs his club had during the opening rounds of playoffs. “In preparation you feel you might be al-right but seeing the way we’ve been executing, we certainly look a little bit rusty with our timing. Part of that’s the way Whitecourt plays,” with a tough defensive style, “but we could do a lot better for sure.”
While Whitecourt did a good job of keeping the Saints tied up in the offensive zone and pushing the play to the perimeter for the most part, the end result was two wins for the Saints and at this time of the year, what’s on the scoreboard at the end of the game is all that really matters. In both games, the Saints big man, Chris Van Os-Shaw had the game winner; the first one game in OT when he beat the defensive alignment on a great stretch pass from Sean Comrie to slide the puck past goalie Xavier Potvin, the son of former NHL goalie Felix. The next night he converted on a one-timer at the side of the net to put his team up by three, which while narrowed to one by the end of the game, was enough for the victory.
Of Van Os-Shaw’s play, escaping from the tight checking he’d faced which took him out of his normal style, Stephen said good players find ways to make good plays.
“This isn’t his style of game. It’s not flowing back and forth,” the coach said about the tight checking everyone has faced.
“Goal scorers want to score and Chris is kind of that prototypical guy. He’s so hungry to finish around the net. He’s got a good shot. Put all those things together,” and you have the young man that proved himself this year by potting 51 regular season goals, earning the AJHL scoring title and the MVP award.
Someone that maybe hasn’t gained the notoriety of his teammate but who has still been steady in the opening two games is Seth Fyton, a Saints forward who has quietly shone. His work down low in the offensive zone has been outstanding as he’s fought to control the puck and set up scoring chances for line mates.
“He’s hard as nails. He’s not the biggest guy but he’s strong,” pointed out Stephen. “He’s a strong north-south player and is very, very competitive.”
Fyten, speaking of the two physical outings his team had just been involved in, said the Wolverines are playing exactly the way they were expected to.
“We were expecting the first game of this series to be a tough one. We’d only played four games in 27 days, so we definitely expected a push there and needed to knock the rust off and push back.”
Speaking to the matter of getting back up to game speed after their lengthy breaks, Fyten said, “We’ve been practicing hard, trying to get in game shape,” which isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do in non-game situations. “Everyday we’re battling hard just to keep up our fitness. It took us that first 10 minutes just to get back into it and I thought we did well.”
About the aggressive style the Wolverines have brought with them to the rink, where there isn’t a lot of room to move, Fyten said while that style is a lot different than what the Saints would like to see, that’s the way things are in this series.
“We just work on our one-on-one’s and you’ve got to beat that check, battle that guy in front of the net,” where Whitecourt has been especially strong in the series.
Now heading into enemy territory for the next two games, Fyten said it’s important for the Saints to keep their composure and to realize that from here on in, everything that is gained has to be earned.
“We just have to stick to our game plan, stay composed. We can’t let anything bother us,” he ended as the Saints go looking to end this series as quickly as possible even though it won’t be as easy as their first round.
In the first game, where the Saints bombarded Potvin with 53 shots, the first two goals came from Parker Saretsky while in Game 2, where they managed only 27 shots on goal, Josh Harris and Logan Gainie each scored once along with the pair from Van Os-Shaw.
The Saints are in Whitecourt on Monday and Tuesday, April 2 and 3 for Games 3 and 4. Both of those games are on 88.1 The One, with the pre-game at 7 and puck drop at 7:30 p.m. If a fifth game is needed, it will be back in the Grove at the Grant Fuhr Arena on Fri-day, April 6 starting at 7 p.m.