A trend is starting to develop much like the ones that already occur this time of the year, the snow starts to melt, the temperature rises and the Crusaders and Saints meet in the second round of the playoffs. For the third year in a row the Sherwood Park Crusaders will have the task of trying to dethrone the top seeded Spruce Grove Saints in the Viterra North Division Semi Finals. The Saints are the defending Gas Drive Cup Champions and are coming off one of the most impressive Regular Season’s in AJHL history.
Sherwood Park is looking to put an end to the Saints reign as Gas Drive Cup Champions.
The Crusaders are ready for a battle after disposing of the Fort McMurray Oil Barons in four games in the Viterra North Division Quarter Finals and hoping a third time is the charm as the Crusaders had the Saints on the brink of elimination in the series last year.
“I’m looking forward to it, I always love playing them. It’s always a good game, it’s physical, our team is ready for it and we’re looking forward to it.” Says Captain Dane Phaneuf on playing the Saints yet again.
Phaneuf had four goals on the backend in the series against the Oil Barons including two on the Power Play. The Crusaders were 3/15 on the Man Advantage, which percentage wise was 7.2% better than the Regular Season average. Special Teams will be huge going up against the Saints.
“We just got to keep things simple, Fort McMurray had just as good of Forwards as Spruce Grove does. So when we get our chances, we got to keep it simple, move the puck around and get it to the net with traffic.” Phaneuf adds.
Another thing that has been a positive so far this Post Season for the Crusaders has been the play in the third period. Sherwood Park outscored the Oil Barons 9-3 in the final frame in the four games they played and most notably, 8-0 in the two home games.
“The games were on the line in the third and the guys stepped up.” Says Crusaders GM and Head Coach Tim Fragle.
One player that definitely rose to the occasion was Forward Tyler Maltby, the rookie scored the eventual Game Four winner in the third period.
Maltby has scored timely goals this Post Season.
“He is skating well, hounding pucks and making plays.” Notes Fragle on Maltby’s play.
Another player Fragle has high praises for is Forward Arthur Gordon. The 20 year old has found a grove in his game. The Crusaders leading score found his grove in Games Three and Four, scoring the game’s opening goal both nights.
“I think playing at home gave me some more jam, came out and got two in one shift, but it was just from working hard, it was good.” Says Gordon on his play.
The 20 year olds for the Crusaders have carried the weight for the team so far. Dane Phaneuf as mentioned has four goals and two assists, while Defenseman Stephen Shmoorkoff has followed up with two goals and one assists. One of Shmoorkoff’s goal was a Game Winner. Gordon has seven points with three goals and four assists.
“[Arthur] is focused, keeping it simple, playing with a high compete level and playing to his strengths.” Add Fragle on the success for Gordon this Post Season.
Fragle and the rest of the Crusaders hope the 20 year olds including Gordon can continue the offensive output in Round Two against the Saints.
“We know what it takes, we got to be better than we were last series, we got to be more intense, lean on the body and make smart and simple plays.” Says Gordon on facing the Saints.
Spruce Grove finished the Regular Season with a record of 48-7-5 good for 101 Points and top spot in all of the Alberta Junior Hockey League winning the Dave Duchak Trophy. The Saints were 5-0-1 in the Regular Season against the Crusaders and outscoring them 21-15. Although the record may not show it, the Crusaders played the Saints close all season long, with games being tied or within a goal heading into the third period. Twice the teams went to Overtime with the Crusaders picking up their only win against the Saints this season.
Sherwood Park scored no more than two goals once this season against the Saints, they will need to generate more offensively in they are to advance to the Third Round for the first time in twelve years.
“They have strong depth, they play with high pace and compete. We need to make simple and quick decision. Managing pucks and dealing with their aggressive pressure will be key.” Says Fragle.
The Saints were led offensively by Jarid Hauptman who had 76 Points in the Regular Season and was nominated for the leagues Most Valuable Player Award.
Rookie of The Year winner Brandon Biro, who is a Sherwood Park native, had 54 Points for the Saints this year.
Spruce Grove had 11 double digit goal scorers and were first in the league for Goals For with 254.
The Saints had exceptional defending this season as well, allowing the fewest goals at 121. Goaltenders Brett Zarwony and Matthew Murray captured the Top Goaltenders Award for the best Goals Against Average.
The Goaltending matchup should once again be interesting. Unlikely to see Matthew Murray in this series for the Saints as it will be Brett Zarowny’s he will go up against Zac Klassen who was lights out in the Fort McMurray series posting three wins, one shutout, a 1.25 G.A.A and .954 Save Percentage. Although Tommy Nixon remains healthy and could play, Fragle is going with Klassen who has earned the starts this Post Season.
As mentioned the although the record may not show it, but the Crusaders and Saints played each other close all year and Coach Fragle is optimistic on his team’s chances.
“We were in tight games against them this year but came out on the wrong end so we need big plays at key times.”
It might be hard to live up to the exciting series it was last year between these two teams. The Crusaders were so close in ousting the eventual Gas Drive Cup Champions. An early 2-0 series lead and a 3-2 series lead did not phase the Saints.
One can imagine what is in store for this series, and really anything isn’t out of the realm of possibility as we saw in the Crusaders series against the Oil Barons. It was predicted to be a close tight checking series going five games. The Crusaders had other ideas and man handled the Oil Barons in Games Three and Four.
All we can do is sit back and buckle in for one interesting series.
-Story By Taylor Medak