You can almost say it was ‘Mission Accomplished’ in the first two games of the best of five Viterra North Division Quarter Finals for the Sherwood Park Crusaders against the Bonnyville Pontiacs. Other than winning both games one and two, the Crusaders got the split, winning game one 2-1, and took home ice advantage away from the Pontiacs.
Both the Crusaders and Pontiacs will look to put one another on the ropes with a victory in game three on Sunday night in hopes of having a chance to end the series in game four on Monday night.
No question, the biggest story in this series so far for the Crusaders has been the play of Goaltender Brandon Vogel.
The affiliate netminder has certainly exceeded expectations of many outsiders and has done everything Sherwood Park has hoped for, and then some.
“Brandon has been exceptional for us through the first two games of this series. He has given us exactly what we needed and he’s making key saves at the right times of the game.” Said Crusaders Head Coach Adam Manah.
The 17-year-old has turned aside 81 Pontiac shots on a total of 84.
“We need him to continue to just be solid for us, and hopefully our offense can help out in front of him.” Added Manah.
For both teams, offense has been a question mark in this series, as both the Crusaders and Pontiacs averaged 3.88 and 3.80 Goals Per Game respectively. Numbers that were in the top five of the AJHL.
However, it is the Playoffs, and usually you can throw out what happened in the Regular Season as both games have been low scoring and very physical, something the Crusaders knew could happen and the coach has certainly liked the physical side of things.
“I thought the first two games were an absolute war. It's a very competitive series so far, and we've been happy with how our guys have pushed back and answered the bell in terms of the physical side. We've done a really good job of limiting their speed through the neutral zone, and we've had good help from our Forwards on the backcheck.” Says Manah.
On an individual side of things, statistically, Ty Readman leads with two Assists for Sherwood Park, but Manah is quick to point out that the scoresheet isn’t truly indicative of who is playing well and that his entire group has been on their game to come back to Sherwood Park tied at one.
“Everyone has had to step up their game in order for us to get the split in Bonnyville. Our back end has been solid and doing it in different ways. Blocking shots, being hard to play against, and scoring us two of our three goals we've scored in this series.” Noted Manah.
In game one it was Defenseman Cam Reagan and Ben McLeod scoring the goals for the Crusaders, while Tyler Maltby scored the only Sherwood Park goal in game two, a game that saw the Pontiacs come out desperate and win 2-1 in Overtime.
Bonnyville’s game two victory, was their first playoff victory against the Crusaders at the RJ Lalonde Arena since February 28th, 2012 in game three of the best of five Division Quarter Final series that saw the Crusaders take it in five games.
For games three and four, the Crusaders will certainly have to continue to match the physicality of the Pontiacs if they want to be successful, but they have been on their heels quite a few times with the pressure the Pontiacs have been able to put on Sherwood Park in games one and two.
“We need to be way better in the face-off circle. That's one of the reasons why we've been having to chase them so much through the first two games.” Says Manah.
Another area to look to see if the Crusaders can improve on is the shot department.
The Crusaders have thrown a total of 32 shots on Sandro Silvestre in the first two games of this series.
“We need to simplify our game in the Offensive Zone, and look to have a shot first mentality putting more pressure on Silvestre to stop pucks.” Echoes Manah.
In the Crusaders 6-1 victory over the Pontiacs on November 26th, Sherwood Park had 29 shots on goal on Silvestre.
Special Teams and success in the Playoffs go hand in hand, and the Crusaders were clicking on the man advantage in game one, scoring on their only opportunity. In the 2-1 Overtime loss in game two, the Crusaders went scoreless on four opportunities. The defending Gas Drive Cup Champions, the Brooks Bandits had a 24.7% rate on the Power Play during last year’s title run. Sherwood Park is at an even 20% in this series.
Certainly, Special Teams will need to come through in the next two games for the Crusaders, and judging by the scoring trend in this series, a goal from an unlikely hero will be needed to propel them to success.
It should be an electric atmosphere at the Sherwood Park Arena for games three and four of this best of five series and the Crusaders are hoping for a great turnout at a place where they had 18 Wins in the Regular Season, one of the better records in the division on home ice.
-Story By Taylor Medak
photo courtesy of Target Photography