By Gord Montgomery
Spruce Grove Examiner
It may have been Thanksgiving Sunday but this was no turkey served up by the Spruce Grove Saints and the visiting Fort McMurray Oil Barons (MOB).
With the MOB riding a perfect season coming into the Grant Fuhr Arena with 14 consecutive wins which was a team record, and the Saints on a mini four-game run, someone’s streak had to end and it did. It just took a while longer than initially planned for.
In a wildly entertaining game the Saints served up a couple of miscues early on that the MOB pounced on for a 2-0 lead but then saw their hosts rebound with three straight markers by Austin Hunter, Macklin Pinchosky and Corey Chorneyko to hold a 3-2 lead with 14 minutes left in the game. But a former Saint, Jetlan Houcher, netted his second goal of the game with 9:23 left to set up a white knuckle finish.
In the 3-on-3 OT period, both teams had great chances to score but neither could serve up the dinner’s dessert to finish things off, so it went to a shoot-out, where the Saints got goals from Dylan Hollman and Parker McKay while goalie Kenny Cameron blanked all the Fort Mac shooters he faced.
After the game, McKay said a win is usually just a win but this one was extra special given the streak they put a halt to.
“It almost sends a message to the rest of the league that we’re here for good now,” he said of the Saints who are loaded with first year-players but have come a long way since the season began.
Of that ability to meld into a strong unit such as they’ve become, McKay said that’s the result of the guys leading the charge — the coaching staff and the veteran players.
“I think that starts from the top down. The coaches are great with us and they expect to win. It’s like that every year and that’s the message that gets into every game,” said the second-year Saint who has also taken a leadership role in mentoring his younger teammates.
Head coach Jason Mckee, who gives his young troops 20 games from the start of the year to get accustomed to the high level of play the AJHL presents rookies, said things are right on schedule as his club improved to 9-4-1 and moved into second place in the North Division, trailing only the MOB, who lead the entire league at 14-0-1.
“The inconsistencies that were in our game are starting to disappear,” the bench boss said a bit later outside a happy dressing room. “What kind of hindered us was we’d be good in one area but not so great in another. Now we’re starting to put a full 200-foot game together.”
While his team trailed 2-1 after one period, Mckee said there was no panic and some simple adjustments during the break solved some problems.
“I just think the biggest thing, the goals they scored we made some critical mistakes,” he said of giving up a power play and a short-handed marker in the first. “On the PK we had a couple of chances to shoot the puck down and we didn’t and then we made a crucial mistake on the power play. When we analyzed that, it was nothing they did right; it was just we made some crucial mistakes. We wiped the slate clean, started fresh, and from that point on played very well.”
While Mckee was pleased his team ended the MOB’s lengthy run with the victory, the Saints fourth straight and fifth in their last six games, there was more to this than that fact, he pointed out.
“More than anything the guys in the room continue to believe in what we’re doing and this kind of solidifies that, to see it working. I thought we played really well in the first 60 minutes; we had some chances in overtime and then we won the skills competition.”
Of that special 1-on-1 fan-friendly way the AJHL ends games tied after 65 minutes of play, the Grove coach said his team practises this element but his choice of shooters is based on a couple of different things, and one of those isn’t drawing names out of a hat.
“We practice it on a daily basis so we have a pretty good feel of guys. It’s partly that and partly how guys are playing. It’s kind of a little bit of a reward and how guys are playing. Those guys played hard for us tonight and are usually pretty good on the shootout, so the combination made it pretty easy. There were some other guys we could have used too. … Sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong.”
As of late things have been going the right way for the Saints who despite some early growing pains are proving to once again be one of the premier teams in the AJHL. This latest win and win streak, small to many but big to this club, is proof of that.
“We’re coming, like I said,” said the coach. “If anything we’re building confidence as we go and like I said early on, we’ll get better on a daily basis.”
As for this win, a huge one that could have long-lasting implications for belief in what they’re doing, the coach said his team earned everything they got on the day.
“We were very deserving of the win,” he stated in closing. “We had a lot of chances in that third period (and) we stayed with the system and did a good job,” in serving up the Thanksgiving feast of great hockey, and complete with a winning dessert, to over 500 holiday guests.
The Saints are back in action this weekend when they host Sherwood Park tonight (Oct. 18) and the Okotoks Oilers the next night. Both games face off at 7 p.m. at the Grant Fuhr Arena.