By Gord Montgomery
Where there’s a will, there’s a way and for the Spruce Grove Saints that means one thing – finding a way to clinch top spot in the tough AJHL North division.
They did exactly that for the fifth straight time last Friday night, with a gutsy, determined effort that saw them down the Sherwood Park Crusaders 4-1 in front of the largest crowd of the year at the Grant Fuhr Arena.
The Saints, who have battled injuries as much as opponents this season, rode strong goaltending by Kenny Cameron and two goals from Sammy Spurrell and singles from Tyler Kunz, who netted the winner and Dylan Hollman to pull far enough in front of their pursuers to guarantee themselves top spot in the North and a first round playoff bye.
Speaking after the game, head coach Jason Mckee expressed his pleasure with how well this team performed this year, despite the incredible amount of injuries they worked through. While he didn’t have a specific number of man-games lost, he commented, “I would say honestly there was maybe a handful of games this year where we had all junior A players in our lineup. It was no more than five.”
Given the fact they now get some extra time off headed into the post-season is a good thing, Mckee agreed, even though the Saints have at times struggled in their first game or two coming off such a break.
“Any time you can get a break, you take it,” he simply stated. “I think what we’ve earned is the right to play in the second round and anytime you can advance a round, you take it.”
As for the division clincher against a much-improved team, the bench boss feels the Cru could open a few eyes in the post-season and in fact, the Saints may even cross paths again with his team in the second round.
“They’re a very good hockey team. They’re deep up front and arguably have the best goalie in the league,” he said of netminder Matt Tomkins. “They’re a team that can be dangerous.”
The key to the latest win over the Cru was “protecting the puck, managing the puck well,” Mckee continued.
“I thought there were a couple of plays we’d like to have back. We controlled the game pretty well although we did have a bit of a lull after they scored,” cutting the Saints 2-0 lead in half about halfway through the second period.
“Our resolve was there in the third and we found a way to win.”
With their regular season now complete, McKee said nothing much is going to change style-wise for the post-season even if some of the hurt manage to get their health back before their first playoff action begins. That series is slated to begin sometime around the middle of March.
“I think our team is built to defend well and have offence chipped in by everyone. I don’t think we’re a team that’s built to score five or six a game. This is an identity that we’ve established, that we like, and we know what makes us successful. We always have to defend well and chip in offence as we go.”
And having some of that offence come from a couple of their scorers, Kevin Lacroix and Casey Knight, who are presently sidelined wouldn’t be a bad thing either.
The Saints finished their regular season play in Lloydminster on Tuesday night with a 3-2 win and lineup that is almost full of junior-aged players but was still not quite up to full strength.