Playoff Preview – Crusaders Battle Pontiacs, Again

In the circles of the AJHL’s Viterra North Division, there’s life, death, taxes and the Sherwood Park Crusaders and Bonnyville Pontiacs facing each other in the Playoffs.

Certainly, that is a small stretch but once again the Crusaders quest for their first ever AJHL title finds themselves matching up against the Pontiacs in the first round for the second consecutive year and the seventh time in the last 10 seasons.

This is the proverbial rubber match as both franchises have won three series in that span, Sherwood Park has had the Pontiacs number the last three series winning in five (2012), three (2014) and four games (2016) in the best of five first round matchups.

This year, the Pontiacs might feel that this is their best chance to win their first Playoff series against Sherwood Park since 2011 as they went 4-2 against the Crusaders in 2016-17 and on paper appear to be the better squad as they are set to host the Crusaders in the best of five first round matchup, Thursday night in Bonnyville.

Sherwood Park is quick to vindicate the opposite, but does have areas they will need to shore up.

“It’s been tighter than it’s appeared, we broke down our scouting package yesterday and saw that we’ve had the lead in four of the six games we’ve played them.  Two of them have resulted in Wins and the other two have been five minute lapses, especially the last two games in Bonnyville where it has absolutely killed us.”  Says Crusaders Head Coach Adam Manah.

It’s been a tough go at the RJ Lalonde Arena this season for the Crusaders, as Manah mentioned they’ve had the lead every time they’ve been in Bonnyville, 2-0 on October 19th and 1-0 leads on February 10th and 19th.  Only to fall every game they’ve played on the road against the Pontiacs in 2016-17.

Part of the reason the results were not there for the Crusaders in Bonnyville were the lapses Coach Manah spoke of. 

February 10th Sherwood Park allowed three Goals in a span of 2:49 in the second period, and on February 19th, three Goals in a span of exactly four minutes led to another loss on the road to the Pontiacs.

“If we feel the pressure coming on our team in game’s one and two, because it’s a raucous building to go into and the crowd is always supportive of their team, we have to be ready to use a timeout to settle the troops down.  Our guys also have to be mentally tougher and make sure whether we score or they score, the next shift is critical.  We can’t give them any freebees or hand them the game.”  Points out Manah.

The Pontiacs were certainly able to grab momentum in the season series and one thing the Crusaders will have to be aware of, is allowing Goals in the final minute of a period.  On three occasions this season, Bonnyville was able to get a last minute Goal in the final minute of a Period.  October 19th, Ryan Symington scored with six seconds left in the first period to tie the Crusaders at two, while on January 18th, twice the Pontiacs netted a Goal in the final minute.  Charlie Gawlicki in the first Period and PJ Marrocco in the second increased the Pontiacs lead in the 7-4 victory in Sherwood Park.

Sherwood Park will have their hands full in trying to contain several of the Pontiacs offensive threats.  It seems more than in years past, Bonnyville has more than a couple of Forwards that potentially can do damage.

Specifically, Derek Brown and Alden Dupuis who combined for 17 Points against the Crusaders this year.  Plus, the likes of PJ Marrocco (five Points) and Dylan Stewart (four Goals) have been able to have success against Sherwood Park in the six games this season.

“If you are going to target specific guys, you have to lean on them.  Skilled [players] don’t like to be hit.  We have to make sure we are hard on those guys and that we’re physical, don’t give them a lot of time and space, especially in our own end.  We have to keep our heads on a swivel and know where they are at all times and again, limit time and space because if we don’t, they can expose us.”  Says Manah.

The players echo that statement.

“It all starts with being physical and paying the price in all aspects of the game.”  Says Crusader Defenseman Ben Sowa.

The veteran Sowa, in his final year of Junior hockey will play in his third series against the Pontiacs and knows the task of advancing in the Post Season won’t be easy.

“We know it is always a tough test, we will be facing a hard nose team that plays with a lot of grit and determination.”  Added Sowa.

Sowa will certainly be looked upon for his physical presence but his offensive ability as well from the back end, and specifically on the Power Play, which saw the Crusaders convert at a 27% efficiency against Bonnyville this season.  A number that is comparable to tops in the Alberta Junior Hockey League in overall Power Play efficiency.

The Crusaders will have skill of their own to generate offense on the Pontiacs. 

For the second year in a row, Sherwood Park will have the league’s top Goal scorer from the Regular Season going up against the Pontiacs.

Forward Tyler Maltby led the AJHL with 38 Goals and hopes to continue the prowess in the Post Season.

“It was nice to have stayed on the same sort of pace as last year.”  Said Maltby.

“As far as Bonnyville goes, it’s always a war.  We are simply going to need to want it more.  When it comes to Playoffs, it no longer matters about who is better or worse, but who wants to win more than the other and who is willing to do all the small things to give their team success.  I’m confident in our team.”  Added Maltby, who will be playing in his second series against Bonnyville.

The Crusaders were second in the division in Goals For and fourth in the entire AJHL with 233.

The team will also rely heavily another player that was one of their top scorers this season, sophomore Ty Readman is eager to build off his 68 Points in 2016-17 and translating that into Post Season success.

“Finishing tied for the team lead in Points definitely feels good and is a big accomplishment for me, but I’m going to have to keep those contributions rolling throughout the Playoffs to help the team succeed down the stretch.”  Said Readman.

The second-year Crusader feels this year’s matchup against Bonnyville provides Sherwood Park an opportunity to prove something to the rest of the league.

“It’s a good challenge for us to prove to the league we aren’t a fifth-place team and to ourselves that our record in the season series wasn’t a true reflection of how we match up against the Pontiacs.”  Readman added.

Like at any level in hockey, teams cannot put all their eggs in the basket when it comes to relying on their top guns in the Post Season.  And for the Crusaders to have success, the supporting cast of players will be called upon for Sherwood Park to advance past the Pontiacs.

Although Forward Matt Dykstra finished third in team scoring with 52 Points, he will be relied on in many areas as the AJHL veteran will get his first taste of Playoff hockey after 134 Regular Season Games.

“It was unfortunate to get hurt last year but I’m really excited to get back in this year and get in my first Playoff game.  It will be a great atmosphere.”  Said Dykstra, who was injured for last year’s Post Season and failed to reach the Gas Drive Cup Playoffs in his first year in the league with the Calgary Canucks in 2014-15.

The Edmonton, AB product has been hampered by injuries throughout his tenure with the Crusaders, but certainly found his stride in 2017.

“We’ve had discussions with [Matt] on being heavier.  He’s already got the speed, the dynamic ability to drive pucks to the net, be hard to play against, be a net front guy on the Power Play, and he’s done a terrific job of providing offense.  That’s the way he needs to play going into the playoffs.”  Says Manah on Dykstra.

In addition to Dykstra, 9 other Crusaders will get their first taste of AJHL Playoff action on Thursday.

This includes netminder Brandon Vogel, who will be given the reigns to the Crusader net in game one against the Pontiacs.

“There is no pressure on Brandon.  The message has been ‘get in there and play’.”  Says Manah.

The future is now with the 17-year-old, as the Fort Saskatchewan, AB Native takes over for Zac Klassen and Jake Morrissey.

“He’s been good so far since coming in.  He joined us for the three games on the road back on February 24th, and was real solid in the two games he played in Grande Prairie.  With the exception of some fatigue against Drayton Valley on the 26th, he made some real key saves, especially in the first Period to get us going.  That’s all we really are looking for out of Brandon.  We know he’s a good Goaltender and we wouldn’t have him up otherwise.”  Said Manah on Vogel.

The X factor in this series certainly will be Goaltending and the Crusaders have been pleased with Vogel’s effort in Goal as he’s appeared in six Games, posting two Wins and a Save Percentage of .891, which hovers around what some starting Goaltenders posted in the league this season. 

Sherwood Park is certainly capable of lending run support to their Goaltender.  The Crusaders have scored six or more Goals in a game 15 times in 2016-17, including four 7 Goal games, three 8 and once 9.  Obviously, the Crusaders don’t want to get into a scenario where they need to score a touchdown to beat the Pontiacs, but hopefully it will give the team some piece of mind, knowing they can put the puck in the net.

Heading into the first two games, the Crusaders would like to win both but having not won at the RJ Lalonde Arena this season, a game at a time will have to be the approach and certainly a split will give Sherwood Park home ice advantage in the short best of five Quarter Final matchup.

As well, the Crusaders hope history is on their side as they have won the last four Playoff games at the RJ Lalonde Arena dating back to 2012.

“We’d love to get both, but we know it’s going to be real difficult and we know that.  Our first goal is to get the split but if we get two, that would be an accomplishment and that would be unbelievable for us coming back home in the same spot as we were last year.  With a best of five, it’s just too short of a series and you don’t want to go down two nothing, but if you can be up, you set yourself up for success as you’ll have three cracks to finish the series.  The split is the most important thing for us, whether we get it in game one or win game two.”  Noted Manah.

The Crusaders will get a boost of veteran presence on the blue line in this series as Defenseman Ben McLeod will return to the Crusaders lineup in game one against the Pontiacs.  The third-year Crusader last appeared on January 7th against Okotoks.

It’s been a roller coaster of year in 2016-17 for the Crusaders under a new regime, with the likes of GM Kyle Chase, Head Coach Adam Manah and Assitant Coach Jeff Woywitka.  But the hockey ops personnel certainly believe the team can continue the franchises’ streak of six straight first round victories in the Gas Drive Cup Playoffs.

Best of Five, Gas Drive Cup, North Division Quarter Final Series

Thursday, March 9 @ Bonnyville Pontiacs 7:30PM
Friday, March 10 @ Bonnyville Pontiacs 7:30PM
Sunday, March 12 @ Sherwood Park Crusaders 7:00PM
Monday, March 13 @ Sherwood Park Crusaders 7:00PM*
Wednesday, March 15 @ Bonnyville Pontiacs 7:30PM*

*denotes if needed

All game will be available on AJHL WebTV.

-Story by Taylor Medak