By Gord Montgomery
Sports Editor, Spruce Grove Examiner
If nothing else, a rough and tumble six game series win over the Sherwood Park Crusaders was a good tune-up for what lays ahead for the Spruce Grove Saints.
The Saints took the Cru out four games to two in their best-of-seven series with a convincing final game 4-0 win in the Park, the third win on the road for the Grove side in the series. Of the series that came after almost three weeks off given the first round bye his team earned, Saints coach Jason Mckee agreed the tempo of the games, all but one of which were decided by one goal, was a good way for his club to get back up to speed.
“There was no question it was a difficult series. We had our hands full and were pushed in all facets of the game,” he noted. “That’s a good fast team that we defended fairly well against for the most part and now we’re going to be playing a similar team in Whitecourt.”
In coming back for the shutout win in the final game with the Park, Mckee said his team played much better than they had two nights earlier when they had the chance to wrap things up on home ice, but lost 2-1.
“We definitely played more physical, for sure,” he said of his team finishing checks in Game 6 unlike in Game 5. “In the games we lost, we lost those battles and in the games we won, we were the better team in regard to the physical nature of the game. We have to make sure that’s part of our game. When we do those things, it makes us a lot more difficult to beat.”
Of winning three times on the road, but losing twice at home as they did against the Park, Mckee said it doesn’t really matter where wins happen, just as long as they happen.
“You want to win wherever you can but at this point, we’ve proven we can win at home. We’ve proven we can win on the road. We could be on an outdoor rink with this group (and win). We’ve just got to show up to play.”
Now they’ll show up to play against a team that many people are surprised to see in the North final after they upset Bonnyville in five games.
Mckee said this series is going to be all about paying attention to detail against a club that has the best playoff record thus far with a .750 win percentage in 10 games and a team that is very good at transition and one-touching the puck.
“They’ve got good team speed, good size and they’ve got top-end talent,” Mckee, whose team has a .667 win percentage in only six games, said of the team that finished fourth in the North Division, nine points in arrears of the Saints.
“Obviously they’ve got depth so for us to have success we’re going to have to have everyone going. We’re going to have to play real good, sound defence.”
What Whitecourt does have is five players, including Michael Claffey, Evan Warmington and Joel Herbert that have skated for the Spruce Grove Saints at one time or another. That will likely add a bit of jump to their stride for the first game or two, at least, and could make for some interesting interaction with former teammates.
The series is set on an every second night basis as opposed to every night in the semi’s, which doesn’t bother the Grove coach.
“Four games in five nights is a lot at the junior level,” he said of playing on back-to-back nights as happened in the Park series. “I think it makes for a better level of quality play for the fans doing it that way.”
The first game in the series was played last night (March 28) with the second game taking place on Saturday, March 30 at the Grant Fuhr Arena in the Grove at 7 p.m. Games 2 and 3 go in Whitecourt on April 1 and 3, and if a fifth game is needed, it takes place on Friday, April 5 in the Grove.