By Gord Montgomery
Sports Editor, Spruce Grove Examiner
In the post-season the one team everyone fears is the underdog on a mission. That appears to be the situation facing the Spruce Grove Saints in their first round of action after an opening round bye, as they square off against the Sherwood Park Crusaders.
The Cru, who were seventh in the eight team North Division this year upset the North’s second seed, the Grande Prairie Storm in four games, winning the last three in a row to meet up with the top seed in this round.
And, says Grove coach Jason Mckee, his club is aware of how dangerous their opponent can be and as such he’s not really surprised to see the Park at this stage.
“With the league being as close as it was this year, seven to one there wasn’t a lot of difference in the regular season, and I think going into it I think every team knew everyone had a chance to win the North. Sherwood Park has a good team with their strengths and challenges like any team and we just have to expose their weaknesses and try to minimize their strengths.”
The one thing the Park possesses is outstanding goaltending but the Saints figured out a way to solve that puzzle the last time the clubs met, a 4-1 win for the Grove that clinched first place in the North and a bye in the first round.
“I think the biggest thing, in the last game we played in Spruce, was we were able to get a few (shots) on him in a variety of different ways,” the coach said about taming the beast in the Park net. “We were able to get traffic in front so I think that area right in front is important so he doesn’t see shots. We want to get in his sightlines as much as possible. If you create opportunities, it doesn’t matter who’s in net if you give yourself the chance to score.”
As for the Park’s speed up front, Mckee suggested his team can skate with the Cru but they’ll also bump and bang as they go.
“We have depth in our lineup as do they and I think it will be a physical series just for the fact that it’s crosstown rivals and emotions will be high. The biggest thing for us is we want to be physical for sure but we want to eliminate their speed through the neutral zone. We want to force them to dump pucks and not be able to attack off the rush. That’s the biggest thing against anybody. You want to eliminate those opportunities, make good decisions with the puck and not turn over pucks in danger areas because they’ve definitely got some guys there that can make some plays.”
Speaking about the rest his troops have had, around 16 days, Mckee said the lengthy break was welcomed with open arms by his troops. He agreed starting up after a long break is tough but given the injuries the Saints had this season the break was worth any first-game rust his team might suffer through.
“No, it wasn’t too long,” he said of the downtime. “I think the situation we were in with long-term injuries, it gave us the chance to get a few players back. We definitely feel a lot better about the situation we’re in with regard to injuries two weeks later than we were two weeks before. It’s given our guys time to heal and we really needed it.”
At this time Mckee wouldn’t say for sure whether or not his lineup would be 100 per cent intact when they hit the ice last night (March 14) for the first game in the best-of-seven series.
“We are going to get two or three guys back but we’re waiting on a couple of other guys. It’s looking good but we want to make sure they’re 100 per cent. If they feel good, obviously we’ll get them in and if they’re not, we’ve got some good affiliates we can use.”
All that being said, after the layoff the Saints are eager to get back to work.
“We used the time productively and the guys are excited to get back, for sure,” the coach ended.
Game 2 in the series goes tonight (March 15) at the Grant Fuhr Arena at 7 p.m. with Games 3 and 4 in the Park on March 17 and 18. Game 5, if needed, and Game 7 will be in the Grove on March 20 and 24 repectively.