By Gord Montgomery
Spruce Grove Examiner
The deeper the playoffs go, the tougher the games become which is exactly what the Spruce Grove Saints found out as they opened the second round of playoffs against the Whitecourt Wolverines in the AJHL North Division final.
The Saints, who finished nine points up on the Wolverines in the regular season standings, won the first two games in the best-of-seven series on home ice but in much different fashions. They then fell in the third game meaning there will be at least one more contest in the Grove.
In the first meeting, the Saints went Sesame Street, using the number ‘3’ to their advantage, as veteran Dylan Richard scored the game-tying goal in the third period, with just over three minutes left, to knot the score at 1-1.
Then it was Connor Hoekstra coming away as the hero in the third overtime period, as he scored the game’s third goal on a perfect feed from linemate Tim Nolte to give the Saints the 2-1 win and the 1- 0 series lead.
“I think we started a little slow but we battled hard and good teams find ways to win and that’s what we did tonight,” said Hoekstra of the win.
The Saints were shaky in the first two periods but finally began hitting their stride in the third.
Of Richard’s tying goal, Hoekstra noted, “He’s a special player, for sure. Not many people can put it in at clutch times.”
The first OT period was open and exciting but then both teams settled into a style where they appeared more interested in not losing rather than winning. The third extra frame was also frantic.
While he was praising Richard for his marker, Hoekstra drew attention for his winner, one-timing a feed from the corner into the Whitecourt net after 93 minutes of play.
“(Mike) Williamson chipped the puck deep and got it to Nolts . He had patience with puck and beat the defenceman and all I had to do was put my stick on the ice,” said Hoekstra.
Replaying the goal, he said he wasn’t going for any spot in particular although he picked the corner. “No,” he said smiling, “I was just getting it on the net.”
Two nights later, it was all Saints almost all the time, as they blitzed the Wolverines 5-1 with a 4-0 run in the second period.
The offence in the middle frame was led by Cameron Hughes who netted a pair of PP goals, surrounded by markers from Casey Knight, Kevin Lacroix and Spencer Galbraith.
Of his night, Hughes said the Saints took a different approach to shooting on the Whiteourt net, as they scored five times on only 20 shots. The game prior, they only scored twice on 44 shots.
“He scrambles a lot,” Hughes said of Whitecourt’s goalie Tanner Kovacs. “The coaches were telling us to wait him him out; he’ll go down and be flopping around.”
Overall, the Saints were much better despite getting less than half the shots on goal they did in the first game. The reason for that? Well, for one thing the goal by Knight just over a minute into the game relaxed everyone and changed the flow of the game.
“It opened up a bit for us, we got the bounces and scoring five gives us confidence going on the road (for Games 3 and 4),” ended Hughes.
After the Game 2 win, head coach Jason Mckee agreed his team had a lot more hop the second time around.
“I liked our start a lot better tonight and I thought we played a real complete, playoff game. Our special teams were good and our 5-on-5 game was pretty good, too.”
Even though they didn’t get many shots in the second game, Mckee said it’s quality and not quantity that count.
“We always want to shoot the puck as much as we can. I think some of the situations with special teams and the way the game finished sort of dictated a little bit on the shot totals. We were just getting the puck deep and not attacking as much as usual (due to the four-goal lead).
“I think more importantly, we generated the good scoring chances and were able to capitalize on them.”
In Game 3, the Saints carried a 3-2 lead late into the third period but gave up two unanswered goals in a span of 2:30. While Mckee likely wasn’t too happy with that, he seemed more concerned that his club hadn’t put the Wolverines away earlier.
“I thought we didn’t play the last five minutes very well; we had some mistakes that cost us. But I think what really hurt us were the opportunities we had in the second and early in the third to score and we didn’t capitalize. That really came back to haunt us when they came back to score the late two.”
The coach said the missed chances weren’t from players gripping their sticks too tightly. Rather, he suggested, it was from not making the right choices.
“We made some poor decisions. I don’t think it has a lot to do with gripping the sticks and if we had to do over, I think we’d make different decisions.
“But like I say, it’s a learning process,” and at this time of year the Saints are learning that there are no easy games.
The fifth game in the series will take place Friday night at 7 p.m. at the Grant Fuhr Arena, with a seventh game, if needed, also at Fuhr at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 15.