The latest two games for the Spruce Grove Saints were seen as the games they had to win, and should win, but not everyone was in agreement with that fact — most notably the team they were playing.
Thus, the Spruce Grove Saints are taking every opponent seriously in the home stretch of the AJHL season, including the two they faced at home on Jan. 11 and 12, the sub-.500 Olds Grizzlys and the Grande Prairie Storm.
As it turned out, the Saints did what they were supposed to in winning both games, 3-1 over the Grizzlys and 4-2 against the Storm. The thing is neither win came easily as is often the case at this time of year in the AJHL no matter whom you’re playing. And yes, these are games his team has to win, said the Saints bench boss Jason Mckee.
“I think every game is important given the situation we’re in and how tight the standings are. They want the two points just as badly as we do,” he said after the second win. “I didn’t expect the games not to be close. From this point on I don’t think you’ll see a lot of games that are three goals or more differences. I think you’ll see a lot of one- and two-goal games.”
Mckee said that both opponents this past weekend played “passive systems and tried to trap things up,” but his team did what they needed to in order to pick up the four valuable points. Against Olds they managed only 24 shots on goal, including five in the final 20 minutes but still scored often enough for the win. Against the Storm, the Saints dominated after falling behind 2-0 in the first period, ending up with 39 shots on goal and likely missing the net from close in at least half that number of times.
“When you’re playing (against) a system like that you’ve got to manage the puck well and our guys did that,” Mckee said, referring specifically to the second game.
Of trailing early in that game, he said, “I don’t think we under-estimated our opponent. Physically we were there. I just think mentally we made some mistakes. We weren’t sharp. It’s a fine line between winning and losing and the difference is very small.”
The turnaround in the Storm game came quickly as the Saints struck for two goals in 17 seconds to tie things up late in the opening period, perhaps sparked by a fight involving Austin Hunter and Blake Bosch from the Storm. Despite giving up what appeared to be a sizable reach advantage, Hunter, at five-foot-10, held his own against his six-foot-one opponent and his teammates responded. From that point on they controlled the game and if not for the play of Nick Kulmanovsky in the GP net the score would have been much higher.
About playing teams not close to them in the standings and about missing on the numerous scoring chances his team had in the Grande Prairie game, defenceman Brandon Hickey said that’s all just part of the game.
“We come in with the same attitude whether we’re playing a sub-.500 team or the number one team in Canada. We just have to come in, play our game and we’ll be fine.
“We’re not concerned (about missed chances) right now. Sometimes the pucks just don’t go in. It’s just a matter of a few inches. We’ll just keep shooting and we’ll be fine. We’ll start scoring some goals again.”
Goals in the win over Olds came off the sticks of Jake Mykitiuk, Carson Samoridny and Jared Hauptman while Cameron Hughes, Hauptman, Nathan Smith with his first for the Saints since joining them after a trade with Drayton Valley, and Samoridny had the markers in the win over Grande Prairie.
With the season winding down quickly and the battle between the Saints and the Fort McMurray Oil Barons still raging, both the player and coach said wins are critical at this time of year but they differed somewhat on their views of running out the year with nothing but victories.
“We almost have to win out the year but I think we can do it,” said Hickey. “I think it’s for sure something we could do.”
As for Mckee, he was perhaps a touch more realistic in his viewpoint.
“I think it’s unrealistic to think you’re going to win the rest of your games … for anybody. I think it’s a situation where you have to look at the week ahead and not get ahead of yourself because there’s just too many things that can happen along the way. We’ll just take a real simple approach and go in week by week segments.”
To round out this week the Saints are in action in Grande Prairie tonight (Jan. 17) and then play at home on Sunday (Jan. 19) against the Whitecourt Wolverines at 2 p.m. at the Grant Fuhr Arena.
On Tuesday, the Saints travelled to Calgary where they came back from a 2-0 third period deficit to edge the Mustangs 3-2 in overtime and maintain their one-point lead atop the AJHL’s overall standings.
• Prior to Sunday’s game, there will be a special salute to the athletes from the West Central District Special Olympics program who are headed to their national games in Vancouver this summer. Also included in the day’s activities aside from the game will be a demonstration of speed skating.
• Hickey, who was helped off the ice after suffering an injury in the opening period said he hopes/will be back skating on Tuesday and ready to play this weekend.
• Brandon Hickey at No. 63 and Tyler Busch at No. 171 were two of the five AJHL players listed in the mid-term NHL Central Scouting report released this week.
• Bring your kids, and skates, and hang around after the game Sunday for another Skate With The Saints.
• Dylan Hollman, a mainstay with the Saints for the past three years has committed to the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, a Division 1 school that plays out of the Hockey East program. He’ll join the Riverhawks next season.