Post to Post
By Gord Montgomery
After an 8-2 start to their season, it would appear that little has gone wrong thus far for the Spruce Grove Saints. Well, except of course for those annoying slow starts that have been the hallmark of virtually every game so far.
That was the case again in their latest outing, a convincing 6-1 win over the Calgary Canucks that began anything but quickly. The visitors struck early in the game, beating Saints goalie Braeden Stephen with their first shot of the day. That though was the last time they got anything past the netminder, who was making his first start of the season.
By the end of the first it was 2-1 Saints, on goals by Tanner Hickey and Nick Leyer, his first of three on the day, although the play was ragged for much of the opening stanza.
About those early-in-the-game-struggles, Saints bench boss Bram Stephen noted, “We’ve been struggling with a lot of things, all 10 games now. Our intensity level has gotten better in the second and third (periods) in all our games.”
Stephen went on to say that for the most part his squad is doing almost the exact opposite of what most clubs do — that is they’re playing well when they don’t have puck possession as opposed to dominating when they have offensive control. To him, that’s what is leading to these scrambly types of games where the flow is constantly interrupted by turnovers.
“Our games have all looked like that. What’s happening is we’re playing very well without the puck, probably better than our group did last year at this time of year. But with the puck, we’re not playing near as well. So what ends up happening is we make a good defensive play, get the puck, then make a poor offensive play,” and turn the puck back over to the opposition, leading to that herky-jerky pace of play.
In regard to that, third-year man Parker Saretsky said the Saints have one idea in mind every time they step on the ice no matter who they’re playing: “We always try to play Saints hockey. After the first (today) we turned the page. Our starts have been rough this year and it’s something we’ve worked on as a team. That’s something we have to keep working on to figure out,” although as each game passes, the rookies in the lineup are becoming more accustomed to the pace and the rigours of playing in the AJHL.
What’s helping to overcome those slow starts has been the solid play, at both ends of the ice, by the strong leadership of all the veteran players. So far, the defensive corps of TJ Lloyd, Hickey, and Corey Babichuk have been nothing short of solid.
“They’re very dynamic skaters at this level,” the bench boss said of that trio, “and they’re going to create (offensive opportunities) on their own and we encourage that.”
Up front, Saretsky currently leads the AJ in scoring with 10 goals and 16 points in 10 games, and is a pivotal part of the team this year, the coach continued.
“He’s very, very motivated. He wants to get better and he’s pushing the envelope … and it’s a huge thing for a team to see that,” from a veteran player who has already college-committed for next season.
Of that weight being lifted from his shoulders, Saretsky said it is easier to play without worrying about what the future holds so as a result he’s more focused on repeating the team’s success of last year.
“There is a bigger and better picture for myself and the team so we push to get better every day,” which for the rest of the league isn’t good news — especially if they can rid themselves of those slow starts.
The Saints are back in action at home twice over the weekend, hosting the Fort McMurray Oil Barons at 7 p.m. on Friday (Oct. 12) and the Drayton Valley Thunder on Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Grant Fuhr Arena. Tickets are available at the door or online at sprucegrovesaints.ca