It’s not the venue where the Sherwood Park Crusaders would like to start the opening round of the Gas Drive Cup Playoffs but it will have to do. Thursday night the Crusaders open up their Best of Five Viterra North Division Quarter Final series in Fort McMurray against the Oil Barons in the Four Versus Five matchuo.
The two teams come into this contest splitting the Regular Season series at three games a piece, with the home team winning every game.
Sherwood Park will be heading into the Casman Centre Thursday night with some confidence after winning their last two games of the season on the road against Grande Prairie, but also, and like most of the year, banged up.
The Crusaders will enter game one without the services of Defensemen Brett Magee, Ben McLeod and Forward Lane Zablocki, the three will not be available in this series. One positive will be Goaltender of The Year nominee Tommy Nixon starting the series in a back up role allowing Zac Klassen to continue carrying the ball after starting 22 of 23 games since Nixon left for the World Junior A Challenge where he sustained injury.
The Crusaders had hoped for home ice advantage in the first round, that was the goal from the start of the season and unfortunately the group fell short by five points to finish fifth with 63 in the Viterra North Division.
“We were hot and cold at times after Christmas. We had to deal with a lot of factors, losing our starting Goaltender Tommy Nixon, forcing Zac to play 41 games and one of our top D men in Brett Magee out of the line up for the last 30 gmaes.” Says Fragle on some of the struggles in the Regular Season.
The Crusaders faced a lot of adversity in 2014-15, especially in the last two months with being involved in nine straight one goal games at one point.
As mentioned, it was a home team season series in six games between the Crusaders and Oil Barons. It was an evenly matched series in many categories, but one that helps the Crusaders is the fact they outscored the Oil Barons 10-1 on home ice, picking up two shutouts in the process.
“We were exceptional with our team defense playing against them here at home. We didn’t give them anything, I think a couple times we only held them to around 20 shots, that’s how you win in the playoffs and that’s what we will have to translate into our game up there.” Notes Fragle on playing the Oil Barons at home.
The Crusaders had there struggles in Northern Alberta losing by two or more goals every game but played the Oil Barons tough.
Obviously the Crusaders will need to win at least one game in Fort McMurray if they want to win this series.
“The sooner the better we can get that win can change the complexion of the series. You need to get a good start, in any series starting on the road. We need to not be distracted by the elements up there.” Fragle says on playing in Fort McMurray.
One player the Crusaders will hope to help them succeed on the road is Forward Ryan Kruper. The Sherwood Park native is riding a three game goal scoring streak heading into Thursday night’s contest.
“It was a really good way to end to the year for me personally, as I was slumping point wise and to get that back that offensive contribution for myself and my team is a good thing.” Says Kruper.
The third year Crusader finished the regular season with 17 Goals 21 Assists for 38 Points and was second on the team in scoring. Kruper had five points in 10 games last Post Season.
The Crusaders will have to slow a down a potent offensive attack by the Oil Barons that is led by Alabama-Huntsville commit Jetlan Houcher who was first in team scoring with 71 Points. Houcher led the league in goals scored with 39 this season and was the lone scorer for the Oil Barons in three games in Sherwood Park this season.
“We got to match their speed, they have a lot of speed and skill and offense up front. It comes down to playing hard and keeping them off the scoreboard and creating our own offensive chances.” Says Kruper on going up against Fort McMurray.
“Their top end guys are real high end, I like their backend, they have a real good mix in size and skill and their goaltending has been exceptional.” Fragle adds about the Oil Barons.
The series will feature the other Viterra North Division nominee for Goaltender of The Year, first year Oil Baron Zach Fortin was up for the award that went to Nic Renyard of the Okotoks Oilers.
The Quebec native posted 20 wins 4 shutouts a 2.72 Goals Against Average and a .924 Save Percentage this season.
“The key is to shoot the puck a lot and get guys to the net. I think as a team our biggest threat is how big we are and how strong we are. We got to get guys in front of the net, screen, get tips and hopefully the puck goes in.” Says Kruper on beating Fortin.
Thursday night will mark the fifth time the Crusaders have faced the Oil Barons in the Post Season, both teams winning a pair of series with the most recent in 2011-12 in the Division Semi-Finals with the Oil Barons wining in five games.
The Crusaders will start their Post Season on the road for the first time since 2012-13 when they upset the Grande Prairie Storm in four games as the seventh seed.
Sherwood Park is hoping for a long playoff run looking to build off being a win away from the North Division Final last season as they fell to the Spruce Grove Saints in seven games in the Division Semi-Final.
The Crusaders have not been past the second round since 2003 and have not played for a title since 1990.
“In the years I’ve been here, we’ve had a chance to get [to the finals]. I think this team has the depth and the strength to get there. Our depth will carry us there and to be on a championship team after losing to Spruce Grove the last two years would be special.” Says Kruper on chasing the Crusaders first Gas Drive Cup title.
It will be a long road and battle to get to the top for the Crusaders, and although they had their struggles this season, make no mistake, they are in this to win.
“We know it’s a journey to get there, we got to go through four different series to get there. We’ve seen teams at the highest level in a low seed go on to win. That’s the long term goal. Short term now is go in and be good in game one. We can’t get to high or too low.” Fragle says going into the Gas Drive Cup Playoffs.
It will be a quick turn around after Game One as Game Two will be Friday night at the Casman Centre at 8:00 PM. The Series will then shift to Sherwood Park for Game Three on Sunday at the Sherwood Park Arena at 7:30 PM. If necessary, Game Four will be played Monday March 9th at the Sherwood Park Arena at 7:30 PM and should the series go the distance, Game Five will be Wednesday March 11th in Fort McMurray at 8:00 PM.
-Story By Taylor Medak