It was an interesting first half of the AJHL’s 50th season, and the 35th for the Sherwood Park Crusaders. An excellent start that was quickly forgotten about after a November not to remember and then followed by a respectable December that now sees the Crusaders sit in 4th spot in the North Division only 4 points back of 3rd place Lloydminster.
“We were inconsistent (in the first half) but it was to be expected given the youth on our team.” Crusaders Head Coach and GM Tim said of his team’s play through the first 39 games.
Sherwood Park has 9 rookies on their roster with an additional 3 players playing their first year in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
Needless to say there has been a learning curve amongst the young players which co-relates to the inconsistency Fragle spoke of.
“We over achieved early in the season and under achieved in November.” Fragle added.
The Crusaders had an excellent start going 10-5-0 in their first 15 games, while having a 7 game winning streak. Mid October to the end of November was a complete 180, going 3-12-1 thanks in large part to injuries and absent players.
There were some bright spots however, the afore mentioned absent players. Forwards Andrew Taverner, Nicholas Jones and Goaltender Tommy Nixon represented Team Canada West in early November at the World Junior A Challenge taking home the Bronze Medal.
In the 3 wins in the mid October to the end of November slump, the Crusaders were able to get some big victories over top teams in the league. Back to back wins against Spruce Grove and Fort McMurray re-established to the rest of the league that the Crusaders can hang with the big dogs in the AJHL.
The beginning of December gave the Crusaders an opportunity to climb the standings in the North Division. Having not fallen out of the playoff race with their November record there was a lot of ground to make up. Going 5-2-1 into the Christmas break and sitting in 4th place was thanks to in large part the play of Forwards Nicholas Jones and Sean MacTavish.
Sitting 1 and 2 respectively, in the AJHL scoring race Jones and MacTavish have led the way offensively for the Crusaders, MacTavish was also named the AJHL Player of The Month for December.
Their success has been a microcosm of the Crusaders latest climb in the standings.
“Along with those two, our commitment to playing better team defense has helped, and playing more together as a team.” Said Fragle.
And together as team Fragle means as in his injured players returning to the lineup.
With AJHL teams returning to action Friday night to begin the drive to the playoffs, GM and Coaches will be evaluating their teams closely to see if any additions are needed as the January 10th CJHL Trade Deadline in only a week away.
“At this point we are a buyer but it will depend what the cost will be.” Said Fragle on his plans for deadline day.
With the standings so close in the league Fragle believes that the deals may not come from within the AJHL.
“Even in the south its tight so we don’t anticipate much movement in the AJHL.”
The Crusaders return to the ice Friday night against the Whitecourt Wolverines, a team that they have had success against this year but have also had their troubles with and with it being a few weeks since both clubs’ last game, the start should be very interesting.
“Play our game and force them to do things they don’t like to do.” Said Fragle, who has always felt, the key against any skilled team is to get them to play outside their comfort zone.
It has been a high scoring season series between the Crusaders and Wolverines, 38 goals in 4 games between both teams. The most recent game was a 5-3 Crusader victory in Whitecourt.
The season series is tied at 2 and both teams come into this game with identical records of 18-19-2 with 38 points, both trailing Lloydminster for 3rd place by 4 points.
Whitecourt will be lead by Colten Mayor who is 5th in the league with 45 points and they will also welcome back Trace Elson who recently spent time with the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League, Elson was also on Team Canada West for the World Junior A Challenge.
The puck drops at 7:00 PM at the Sherwood Park Arena, for more information regarding Friday’s game please call 780-417-1171, tickets can be purchased at the Crusaders Box Office right up until game time.