During a long regular season a coach has to put a spin on almost each and every game to make it important and such was the case with the home-and-home series between the Spruce Grove Saints and the Whitecourt Wolverines on Nov. 29 and 30.
While the spin for the Wolverines was easy — they were in third place in the AJHL North but more than a dozen points behind the second-place Saints — making something out of this quick set wasn’t quite so easy for the Grove squad.
But coaches Jason Mckee and Michael Ringrose set the home-and-home games up as a mini-playoff series, a taste of what’s to come down the line as the season winds down, and that worked wonders for their club as they took both ends, winning the first game on the road 5-3 and then wrapping things up, albeit in a somewhat sloppy fashion, with a 5-4 home ice win the next night.
In the finale, the Saints fell behind twice, 1-0 and 2-1, battled back to take a 3-2 lead and then gave that up before finally pulling ahead 5-3 and hanging on for the win. While it wasn’t pretty, and everyone in the home dressing room knew that, it was still two points and kept the Saints one point out of first place overall in the AJHL.
Afterwards, both head coach Mckee and skater Parker McKay, who along with line mate Tyler Robertson doggedly held onto the puck in the Whitecourt end in the game’s dying moments to run down the clock, agreed this contest wasn’t especially pretty to begin with.
“It did take a little bit to get in the game,” said McKay. “I guess we did have a slow start. We maybe thought we had it in the bag because we’d won,” the night before.
Mckee agreed there was a lot of watching rather than creating for his team in the opening period and that very fact was the topic of conversation at the break.
“We talked about it and wanted to be better than what we were, that’s for sure. There are a lot of areas to clean up after a game like that but we found a way again which is a positive and I have to give credit to the guys. Things weren’t going well for us and frustration was setting in but we dealt with the adversity pretty well and in the third we kind of regrouped and found a way. There are things you can learn from games like that. There are areas of our game we have to clean up, and that was pretty evident.”
With the four points in the bag, both player and coach agreed that this sort of series was a good taste for the rookies on the team in preparing mentally for what lays ahead in the post-season. While it’s likely these two teams won’t meet in the opening round of the playoffs, they could well face each other down the line as they did last year in deciding the North Division champion.
This win, the bench boss agreed, was important for the young players in his room to see you can make something out of nothing, not that you want to put yourself in that position too often.
“It’s a good learning experience,” Mckee stated. “There was definitely some pushback from Whitecourt tonight and our guys, the young guys going through it for the first time, got a pretty good taste of it tonight.”
“That’s the adversity we have to face,” said McKay on the same subject. “When we were winning and they came back to tie it up, we could have sagged right there but instead we gave a pushback and that comes from the coaches. It’s a good learning experience (for the rookies). It gets them to feel a little bit what it’s going to be like in playoffs. Whitecourt’s got a big defence and we had to figure out what it takes to beat it and that’s exactly what it takes in the playoffs to win; making the little adjustments in games and between games.”
As for he and Robertson killing off those valuable seconds in the final moments of the third period by shuffling the puck along the end boards in the Whitecourt zone, McKay said that’s part of playing as a team.
“It’s supporting each other and Robbie’s been really good lately, learning how to control the puck, protect it, doing what it takes. In those last minutes to do that, it’s good to see.”
The coach was in full agreement with how hard those two in particular worked to run the Wolverines out of time.
“I thought they did a good job of managing it and not throwing it away blindly. They did a good job of killing a lot of time there for us,” Mckee said, agreeing that on this night, maybe, just maybe, his guys were a bit lucky to win despite out-shooting Whitecourt 44-25.
“Yeah, you never know. It was one of those games where we created some opportunities. Their goalie made some good saves but it was a sloppy game and when you play a sloppy game you run the risk of losing for sure. Our puck management and our back-checking kind of all ties together and we weren’t very good at that tonight … but we have some time this week to straighten some things out.”
And, two points is two points no matter how you come by them.
In the first game win, goals came from Jared Hauptman (2), Cameron Hughes, Colton Leiter and Cole Nicholson, while in the second win, single markers came from Carson Samoridny, Connor Hoekstra, Austin Hunter, Dylan Hollman and Hauptman.
The Saints are back in action at home Saturday (Dec. 7) when they host the Camrose Kodiaks in a 7 p.m. start at the Grant Fuhr Arena.