Making up for lost time is what it has been the last three Post Seasons between the Sherwood Park Crusaders and the Spruce Grove Saints. It was 2002-2003 the last time the two capital region teams met in the AJHL Playoffs until 2012-2013 when the two teams clashed for the first time in 10 years.
Now, in 2016, it will be the fourth year in a row the Crusaders and Saints meet in the Post Season, with Spruce Grove having ended Sherwood Park’s Playoff runs the last three seasons.
While Sherwood Park has run into the road block of the Saints, they have been able to have success after disposing of Sherwood Park.
In 2012-13, the Saints were able to defeat the Crusaders in six games and went on to capture the North Division title over Whitecourt, only to lose to Brooks in the league championship.
2013-14 had been the closest the Crusaders had come to defeating the Saints in the Playoffs the last few seasons. An epic seven game series saw Spruce Grove stave off elimination twice to oust Sherwood Park 4-3.
Last season, although ended in six games, didn’t feel close for the Crusaders after going down 3-0 in the series only to pick up two victories after that.
What happens this year, remains to be seen, but the Crusaders are feeling confident heading into the Best of Seven Division Semi Final against the Saints after a first round series victory over the Bonnyville Pontiacs 3-1 in the Best of Five Division Quarter Final.
“It was great for our team to finish the series in four games, we treated Game Four like it was a Game Five situation knowing we didn’t want to go back to [Bonnyville]. Now we’ve had time to rest up and get ready for Spruce Grove.” Says Crusader Defenseman Chris McKay.
Mckay lead the charge for Sherwood Park in Game Four scoring a hat trick in the second period to help the Crusaders to a 7-1 victory in Game Four over Bonnyville.
“The boys played strong for majority of the game and really played well together.” Notes Crusader GM and Head Coach Tim Fragle.
Game Four’s effort may have been one of the most complete victories all season long, and it came at the right time after the Crusaders failed to complete the sweep against the Pontiacs in Game Three.
“It was a team effort that led us to victory. Each game had its standouts. [Zac] Klassen was very consistent in all four games.” Added Fragle.
The veteran netminder has stopped 160 of 170 shots so far in the Post Season, and is chomping at the bit for series victory against the Saints.
“I’ve felt really excited, I think we have a really special team this year. I’m just trying to do everything I can to help the team out.” Says Klassen.
Redemption may also be on the mind of the Sherwood Park Native as Klassen was pegged with both losses in the first two games of last year’s series allowing seven goals.
“We’re going to have to stick to our game plan, I think last year we got caught up in ‘having to beat them’ so bad. This year we really just have to stick to the game plan and believe in each other.” Added Klassen.
Coach Fragle also emphasises Klassen’s statement.
“In this series, the focus is on us playing our game and sticking to it consistently.”
What will also be key, as in any playoff series, will be Special Teams.
In the Regular Season, Spruce Grove on the Power Play was seventh at 20.8% while Sherwood Park is second in the Post Season at 30.7%, 12.% better than their Regular Season rate of 18.6% with the man advantage.
“Both the Power Play and Penalty Kill departments contributed to the series win against Bonnyville and we will need to keep it going in Round Two.” Fragle says.
It’s been well documented that this Crusader team is one of the deepest Sherwood Park has seen in years. In Round One against Bonnyville it was the usual suspects leading the way for the Crusaders, as Ryan Kruper, Cameron Brezinski and Tyler Maltby have eight, six and five Points respectively.
With four Points, one Goal and three Assists, is Forward Darcy Zaharichuk. The first year Crusader and Junior veteran is hoping to make a further impact in Round Two against Spruce Grove.
“After my injury, I wanted to comeback, slow my game down and start making plays again. It’s been good and my line mates have been good as well.” Said Zaharichuk.
“There’s a lot of history between the two teams so I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I think we have to keep an even keel, not get too high or too low, outwork them and I think things will be good.” Noted Zaharichuk.
On the side of things for Spruce Grove, they open up the 2016 Gas Drive Cup Playoffs after the First Round bye as they were the Viterra North Division champion for the seventh year in a row with a record of 49-7-4 and 102 Points.
They are seeking their third straight Gas Drive Cup and have only one goal in mind an that’s going all the way to Lloydminster and the RBC Cup in May.
Up front they are lead by a dynamic group of Forwards such as veterans Tyler Busch, Colton Leiter and sophomore Brandon Biro. The likes of Riley Simpson, Nicolas Correale and former Crusader Jake Mykitiuk provide a great two way presence. The Saints had five, 20 Goal scorers in the Regular Season.
On the back end, there is speed, offense and toughness. Cole Nicholson and Connor James both had over 10 Goals while rookie Ian Mitchell led with 21 Assists among Defensemen on the Saints. Jordan Thomas has been a threat whenever he is on the ice. The physicality will undoubtedly come from all around but primarily from Macklin Pichonsky who had 106 PIM’s this season.
Also on the blue line, we will see a matchup of two brothers as Crusader Defenseman Ben McLeod goes up against his older brother Dexter of the Saints.
“It’ll be a great series, I’ve played against him before and while it’s pretty cool we are both stay at home defensemen, so I don’t know how much we will see each other on the ice.” Chuckles McLeod
The second year Crusader is hoping however, he will have bragging rights when the series ends.
“I believe we have a good amount of momentum coming off a big series win against Bonnyville, I think we can definitely beat them. It will be a tough hard fought series with both teams leaving everything on the table.” Adds McLeod.
In Goal, the Crusaders will have to deal with the netminder that stole their hearts in Game Six of last year’s series, Matthew Murray.
The AJHL’s Goaltender of The Year in 2015-16 is poised to add to his hardware of accolades this season as he was apart of Team Canada West that captured Gold at the World Junior A Challenge back in December.
The UMass commit led the Saints to victory in the Gas Drive Cup Finals against Brooks last season.
The record against the Saints shouldn’t deceive anyone into thinking Spruce Grove has the series already in the bag after going 4-2 against the Crusaders this season.
“They were all tight games, four of six were tied or only seeing a team up a goal heading into the third period.” Says Coach Fragle.
Sherwood Park is hoping that the fourth time is a charm against the Saints in 2016.
Below is the schedule for the Best of Seven Viterra North Division Semi Finals:
Friday March 18 in Spruce Grove 7pm
Saturday March 19 in Spruce Grove 7pm
Monday March 21 in Sherwood Park 7pm
Wednesday March 23 in Sherwood Park 7pm
Friday March 25 in Spruce Grove 7pm **
Sunday March 27 in Sherwood Park 7pm **
Tuesday March 29 in Spruce Grove 7pm **
** If Necessary
-Story By Taylor Medak