GRANDE PRAIRIE, AB – It’s all on the line Wednesday night at Revolution Arena in Grande Prairie as the Sherwood Park Crusaders and Grande Prairie Storm finish off their epic first round series for the chance to face the Spruce Grove Saints in the second round of the 2018 Inter Pipeline Playoffs.
It’s been a back and forth series that has everyone wishing it could be a best of seven. No team has won back to back games in this series, the Crusaders are hoping they can be the first one after staving off elimination in game four with an 8-5 victory over the Storm on Sunday.
“Game four was huge for us. A lot of guys putting pucks in the net was good confidence wise.” Says Crusaders captain Brendan Kallis.
Sherwood Park score five unanswered goals in game four to pull ahead of Grande Prairie.
“It was a matter of wearing them down in the first three games, we played well in the first three and it only seemed like it was a matter of time before we broke through with as many goals as we did.” Added the captain.
The Crusaders had fantastic outings from top to bottom, one player who had a bit of a breakout game was Forward Erik Miller.
The first year Crusader scored two goals, one of them the eventual game winner, and added an assist as well.
“We came out great, it was do or die situation. I thought we played well and I was happy to chip in. Credit to my linemates and everybody else out there helping me out.” Notes Miller.
The first year Crusader has been on a line with leading scores Dylan Stewart and Ryan Cox, the trio combined for seven points in game four. Miller certainly has been enjoying his time with Stewart and Cox.
“I can’t complain at all! Those guys are great players and they are really good with or without the puck.” Praises Miller.
Despite the Crusaders getting behind the 8-ball in allowing the game’s first goal, it did not phase the group and the coaching staff was pleased with the group’s response in game four.
“They came out hard in the first few shifts, you could tell [the Storm] were determined to close out the series in game four and despite giving up the first goal, I thought our guys came right back and responded. The effort was outstanding, it was a fantastic game to watch.” Says Crusaders Head Coach Adam Manah.
Game four felt like it was the type of game that had been eluding Sherwood Park all series. They have out-chanced the Storm in games two and three but ran into a hot goaltender in Ethan Slobodzian. In game four, similar to some of the games against Grande Prairie at home in the regular season where Sherwood Park scored a ton of goals, the Crusaders were able to execute and chase Slobodzian from the net with five goals on 12 shots.
“We’ve liked the first four games we’ve played, we haven’t had a game under 35 shots and in terms of the chances we’ve been creating against an outstanding Goaltender in [Ethan] Slobodzian, it was the perfect timing to breakout in game four and hopefully we can carry that into game five.” Notes Manah.
The Storm will certainly have a tough decision on their hands, do they go back with Slobodzian in game five, the goalie who has been stellar with a .943 save percentage until game four or with Charles-Olivier Levesque, a goalie who hasn’t started since February 19th?
No matter who is in goal for the Storm, the Crusaders will have to focus on themselves and what they can control, and that’s what the players are harping on.
“Physicality is going to be a big one for sure, we got great size on the back end and as well up front, we are going to need to use that to our advantage. We need to stick to doing what we do best and not get away from that. Going up for game five, it’s an elimination game for both teams, it will be good energy on both sides. It’s going to be a great game.” Said Kallis.
“I think we just need to keep things simple, play the way we did in game four by pushing the pace and not sit back. We’d like to score first, that’s the biggest thing as we haven’t done that in any of the games. I think scoring first would settle down our group and we’ll take off from there.” Added Miller.
Certainly, the Crusaders can say the right things, but action on the ice is what is ultimately critical.
In game four, Sherwood Park did a great job of silencing Storm Forward Edouard Michaud to only an assist. The Quebec product had scored five goals in the first three games, and when he has scored twice in a contest, the Storm are 2-0 in the series.
Sherwood Park will need to lean on the likes of Michaud, Justin Bernier and Dallas Comeau in game five in order for success, as well as take care of their own end first.
“We can’t cheat for chances, that’s the biggest one, not against this team. It’s going to be very important, especially in our own end looking to stretch the zone or fly to early. We’ll have to make sure we start underneath the puck on the defensive side. On top of that will be puck management, specifically on the blue lines. We will have to control our emotions, particularly after the way game four went.” Says Head Coach Manah on the team’s keys to success in game five.
Game five should provide plenty of theatrics as the best of five division quarter final series comes to a close and will certainly be one of the most memorable series in the past few years in the AJHL. Head Coach Manah won’t have too much to say to his group other than to stay level headed in such a highly contested affair.
“Both teams want to move onto the second round. It’s going to be very intense and everyone will be clawing for whatever they can get. We have to be careful after the whistles, making sure we are smart and not retaliating hopefully if they are the ones wanting to mix it up, they’re heading to the penalty box.”
The Crusaders will look to advance to the second round of the post season since 2016 while to the Storm will get their second crack at winning their first playoff series since 2010.
The winner, will get the opportunity to take on the Viterra North Division winners in the Spruce Grove Saints in the best of seven division semi-finals beginning Friday.
-Story by Taylor Medak