It seems that in the last nine years the Sherwood Park Crusaders have consecutively made the Playoffs, they cannot go more than two seasons without playing the Bonnyville Pontiacs. 2016 will see a rivalry renew acquaintances in the Post Season for the sixth time and this time around it seems there is much more on the line than just a measly First Round matchup, as both teams feel they are ready in taking that next step to winning their first ever Gas Drive Cup.
First you have the Crusaders, in 2015-16 it was their best season ever under GM and Head Coach Tim Fragle in terms of Wins, 39, and Points, 80. They have the one of the top scorers in all of the Alberta Junior Hockey League this season in Forward Ryan Kruper, and the leagues leading Goal scorer in Forward Tyler Maltby. The Crusaders have advanced to the Second Round in the Post Season in four straight years only to fall in games, five, six, seven and last season in six again. Fragle’s group has come very close in the past to reaching the Viterra North Division Finals for the first time since 2002-2003 and the group has progressed so much under him, that it seems an early Post Season exit would be a step in a backwards direction for the organization.
“I’ve been involved with the series against Bonnyvile over the years…There’s a lot of excitement, we have a lot of guys leaving the club this year, so a lot of them know that and are thinking we need a good push here.” Says GM and Head Coach Fragle on facing the Bonnyville in the Best Of Five North Division Quarter Final.
The same thing goes for the Bonnyville Pontiacs. It was their best season in franchise history and it was a year that saw them take home some serious individual hardware and thriving with the ambition to return to uncharted territory, much like the Crusaders, the Third Round of the Post Season and beyond. The Pontiacs were eliminated just like Sherwood Park last season by the eventual champions the Spruce Grove Saints in the Division Final. GM and Head Coach Rick Swan took home Coach of The Year honors, while Forward Bobby McMann was named the leagues MVP and Defenseman Brinson Pasichnuk was honored as the Top Defenseman.
Much like the Crusaders, an early exit definetly does hinder the progression the Pontiacs are looking to go forward with.
It’s tough to determine who the favorite really is in this series, naturally one would give the edge to the Pontiacs because they are the higher seed, they have home ice advantage and finshied nine Points better than the Crusaders.
You can also give the edge to Sherwood Park, who had a record of 5-1 against Bonnyville this season including three wins on the road at the RJ Lalonde Arena in Bonnyville, by a combined score of 14-7.
Once more on the flipside, and maybe you give the momentum right now to the Pontiacs as oppose to the favorite, as Bonnyville’s lone win against the Crusaders came in the final meeting of the season, and 8-2 grubbing at the Sherwood Park Arena.
They also start the series on home ice.
“I don’t care who you are, home ice in the playoffs is a huge advantage so we’re going to have to fight that fight.” Notes Fragle starting on the road.
You don’t have to look that far back to see that last time the Crusaders started the Post Season on the road as it was last year against Fort McMurray that Sherwood Park finished fifth and was forced to begin in the Oil Baron’s home barn.
The game plan for both teams in terms of a player matchup will be slowing down it’s best players. For the Crusaders one of those players is league MVP Bobby McMann, who finished with 36 Goals and 32 Assists.
“We’ve done a good job against [McMann] this year, we limited him and we have to do that again. That’s a team effort, it can’t be one guy because he plays a lot and is very dynamic. We need to have team buy-in there, he’s an excellent to way scoring player, we’ll be tested.” Said Fragle on going up against McMann.
The Crusaders will also be seeing a lot of Defenseman Brinson Pasichnuk in this series and Fragle know it will be hard to try and expose the leagues top Defenseman.
“He’s a dynamic player, again it’s a team effort. You have to play him hard, he’s very deceptive and we can’t fall for his dynamic moves. We need to play him straight up and honest.” Details Fragle when matching up against the Defender.
The Pontiacs in turn will have to contain the Crusaders top guns in Forwards Ryan Kruper, Tyler Maltby and Cameron Brezinski.
The trio combined for a total of 206 Points including 98 of the team’s 240 Goals.
The three players have spent time together on one line this year and have been reunited down the stretch, they could start the series against the Pontiacs together.
The Pontiacs and the Crusaders have had scoring throughout their lineup all season, something Fragle has been trying to establish during his time with his respective group.
“Statistically it’s been one of the best groups I’ve coached, when you look at the numbers, we’ve had one of the deeper teams this year and I think that’s what I’m most proud of for this year’s team. As a staff we’ve done a better job of having contributions throughout our lineup.” Notes Fragle.
Because of Sherwood Park’s depth, the Crusaders injury bugs have been less amalgamated this season. Down the stretch the Crusaders had been missing key guys, including captain Brett Magee on the backend.
“It’s always pretty tough sitting out and watching when you want to out on the ice with the boys but I’m happy to be back.” Says Magee.
The Crusader captain has appeared in 18 AJHL Playoff games scoring a Goal and an Assist, and is eager to return to the ice and lead Sherwood Park into battle.
“Everyone is just really excited to get things going and this really is the most fun time of the year and it’s whatwe’ve been working towards since the off season.” Magee said.
“He’s a steady guy for us back there and he as well had a good statistical year.” Added Fragle.
Magee appeared in the 2014 series against the Pontiacs that saw the Crusaders sweep Bonnyville in three games and knows the play in the Defensive Zone for the Crusaders will be a key to success.
“We have to defend off the rush and keep them to the outside to avoid giving them grade ‘A’ scoring chances. The team that sacrifices their own body to block shots, take hits and just simply wants it more than the other team is going to come out on top.” Emphasizes Magee.
Like in any playoff series, the battle in Goal will be a key as well. The Crusaders will have the task in going up against Olivier Charest who has only lost in regulation five times since late October. Two of those losses coming against Sherwood Park. The Quebec product led the AJHL in shutouts with six
On the Crusaders side of things, with a series win under his belt from last season it should be Zac Klassen’s to lose, but Fragle has been adiment all season long that it has been and will be a platoon system in net with the Klassen and Zach Dyment.
“We’ve used both all year and we plan to use both again. If we are going to have success in the Post Season we know we are going to have to play both guys. They both have been great for us and the tough descision will be who to go with in Game one.” Says Fragle.
A case can be made for either Goalie to get the nod as both Klassen and Dyment have played excellent against the Pontiacs in the five victories over them. Dyment especially as he went 3-1 against the Pontiacs with a .925 Save Percentage.
The disappointing thing of sports is that there are winners and losers and in a year and series where it appears both teams don’t deserve a First Round exit, one unfortunately will receive that fate.
2016 Gas Drive Cup Best of Five North Division Quarter Final Schedule:
Bonnyville vs. Sherwood Park
Game 1 – Thursday, March 10 @ Bonnyville 7:30pm
Game 2 – Friday, March 11 @ Bonnyville 7:30pm
Game 3 – Sunday, March 13 @ Sherwood Park 7:00pm
Game 4 – Monday, March 14 @ Sherwood Park 7:00pm*
Game 5 – Wednesday, March 16 @ Bonnyville 7:30pm*
* If necessary
-Story By Taylor Medak