SHERWOOD PARK, AB – It’s the most wonderful time of the year in the hockey world or at least in the world of the Alberta Junior Hockey League as the 2018 Inter Pipeline Playoffs are set to begin Wednesday in Grande Prairie.
The Storm and Crusaders will face off in the post season for the fourth time, as the Crusaders last won the most recent encounter in 2013 as the seventh seed in the North Division, upsetting the Storm in four games.
This time around the best of five first round matchup between the fourth and fifth seeds will see two high scoring teams that had a back and forth season series with the Crusaders holding a slight edge with a record of 3-2-1 against Grande Prairie.
The season series was also a home team series that saw the respective home team win every game.
“When they came to Sherwood Park in November, December and January we were starting to pick it up at home and that made it difficult on them. It’s a tough building to play in up in Grande Prairie, they are getting much better crowd support which makes it difficult to play in and they feed off that energy.” Says Crusaders Head Coach Adam Manah.
“The first ten minutes will be key in games one and two and unfortunately in our last two regular season games that’s something we struggled with, but it will be imperative in Grande Prairie that we focus on having a good start and weather the storm in the first ten minutes and go from there.” Added Manah.
Sherwood Park will certainly have weather the Storm as Grande Prairie has a dynamic offense that has had success against them at Revolution Arena.
With three of league’s top 10 scorers in the Storm lineup the Crusaders certainly will have their hands full with the likes of Justin Bernier, Edouard Michaud and Dallas Comeau. Plus, the Storm have the AJHL’s Rookie of the Year and Vermont commit Zachary Okabe to boot. In total, those four players combined for 277 points in the regular season.
“They’re a skilled group that likes to take chances, if we play as a unit, get pucks deep and make them come through all of us and play a 200-foot game. We have guys that can score too, and if it turns into that type of game we just have play smarter.” Says Crusaders Associate Coach Jeff Woywitka.
The proof is in the pudding for Sherwood Park when it comes to shutting down the Storm’s top guns and having success.
The Crusaders are 3-0-1 when Bernier and Okabe are held to a point or less and 3-1-1 against Grande Prairie when Edouard Michaud is held to a point or less.
Bottom line, if the Crusaders can shut down the Storm’s top six Forwards, it should translate into success.
In turn, the game plan for Grande Prairie should similarly be to negate the likes of Dylan Stewart and Ryan Cox.
The Crusaders leading scorers played some of their best games against Grande Prairie as Stewart led the way with nine goals and three assists, while Cox balanced things out with five goals and six assists.
Edouard Michaud of the Storm had only had five goals against the Crusaders this season while Storm leading scorer put up eight points in six games against Sherwood Park.
In any playoff series at any level, success usually comes down to special teams and goaltending.
On the special teams side of things, Sherwood Park finished the season third on the man advantage at 21.1% while the Storm were right behind the Crusaders with the fourth ranked power play at 20.5%.
The Crusaders climbed the charts throughout the season when it came to the power play and certainly surged in the final quarter of the season.
“Adding a guy like Tyler Jette to our back end has really helped. Guys like Ty Readman and Ryan Cox have started to attack the net more from the side walls. [Dylan] Stewart is getting in front of the net and it’s creating second and third opportunities and difficulties for the opposing goaltender.” Said Woywitka on the success of the team’s power play.
During the season series, the Crusaders had a 16.7% conversion rate on the power play while the Storm were held to 13.6% on the man advantage.
As said, along with special teams, goaltending in the post season is critical and both teams have question marks heading into the series. Not in terms of their Goaltenders, but the health of their Goaltenders.
Brandon Vogel will make his fifth career playoff start Wednesday in Grande Prairie after missing the last four games due to a collision against Braydon Jenkins of Lloydminster in late February.
For Grande Prairie, off season acquisition Charles-Olivier Levesque hasn’t seen action since February 19th but will be a game time decision for game one Wednesday night.
Backup Goaltender Ethan Slobodzian played in the final five of six games for the Storm.
If the Crusaders are to be successful in this series they will have to revert back to what was giving them success during their five game win streak in the second half February. They will need to play as a unit, create offense by going to the dirty areas and receive timely efforts on special teams and in goal.
One big thing will also be the faceoff circle.
Sherwood Park was absolutely dominated last post season by the Bonnyville Pontiacs in the circle. Keeping the puck out of the hands of the skilled Grande Prairie players all starts in the faceoff dot.
2018 Inter Pipeline Playoffs Best of Five Viterra North Division Quarter Final:
Game 1 – Crusaders @ Storm – Wednesday March 7th, 7:30pm
Game 2 – Crusaders @ Storm – Thursday March 8th, 7:30pm
Game 3 – Storm @ Crusaders – Saturday March 10th, 7:00pm
Game 4 – Storm @ Crusaders – Sunday March 11th, 7:00pm (if necessary)
Game 5 – Crusaders @ Storm – Tuesday March 13th, 7:30pm (if necessary)
All games will be available on AJHL WebTV at hockeytv.com.
Games 1, 2 and if necessary Game 5 can be watched at Average Joe’s Sports Bar in Sherwood Park.
-Story by Taylor Medak