The Sherwood Park Crusaders find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to Home Ice Advantage in the First Round of the Gas Drive Cup Playoffs. Sitting in fifth place in the Viterra North Division with a record of 22-21-7 the Crusaders have exactly ten games left to improve their place in the standings.
The road did not get any easier after a Wednesday night loss, 6-5 in Overtime on the road in Bonnyville against the Pontiacs.
“We lost in 3 on 3 Overtime. We took a chance offensively which lead to a 2 on 1 for them that they capitalized on. In regulation we did have three breakdowns defensively that just can't happen.” Says Crusaders GM and Head Coach Tim Fragle. “It was a playoff like atmosphere.”
A First Round matchup with the Pontiacs is looking more and more of a sure thing, yet again. But third spot is still in reach if the Crusaders can go on a run and get some help in the final ten games.
It all begins Friday night when the Crusaders host the Grande Prairie Storm for the second time this season. It will be only the third meeting of the 2014-15 Regular Season with a month left to play. These two teams will see a lot of each other with four of the last ten Crusader games are against the Storm.
Grande Prairie is in a dog fight for the final playoff spot in the North trailing Drayton Valley by four points with twelve games remaining. The Thunder have two games in had as well.
“They work and are well coached. They have good speed and their goaltending has been exceptional.” Says Fragle on the Storm, who are a much different team than when they came to Sherwood Park on October 8th, losing 6-0.
Only twelve players, not including Goalies, return from the October 8th game.
The Crusaders hope they can rekindle some of that success in the October 8th game and as well the offensive touch they have had in the last two games, scoring ten goals. Other than Wednesday game in Bonnyville and the win Saturday against Brooks, the Crusaders have scored more than two goals once out of seven games in January.
“A bit of everything [is working]. We are capitalizing on chances and putting more pucks on net.” Says Fragle on the recent offensive output.
The Crusaders have to be weary as well of the Storm attack, even though they are last in the AJHL in Goals For, as last game between the two clubs, Grande Prairie scored six en route to a 6-4 win on December 16th in Grande Prairie.
One interesting side note that will occur for the third time this season Friday night is the battle of the Zablocki brothers. Crusaders Forward Lane, who has points in three straight games, will take on brother Josh who has four points in as many games.
As mentioned, third place is still in reach for this Crusader team. If they can pick up a victory Friday night and get a little bit of help from their cross town rivals the Spruce Grove Saints, Saturday’s game against the Fort McMurray Oil Barons will be a big four point game.
The Saints and Crusaders share the same opponents this weekend, with Spruce Grove getting the MOB Friday night and the Storm on Saturday, the Crusaders trail Fort McMurray by five points and can get within one point of the Oil Barons with two victories and two Oil Baron losses this weekend.
For Crusader fans it’s been enjoying to see the games Fort McMurray has played at the Sherwood Park Arena. 3-0 and 2-1 wins are what fans have been able to witness, they have been real tight and intense games.
Saturday night will be no exception.
It’s been two weeks since the Oil Barons last visit where the Crusaders came back down 1-0 and won 2-1. Goaltender Zac Klassen had one of his best games of the season making 21 saves. The Crusaders will once again have to try and contain the leagues leading goal scorer Jetlan Houcher who has 34 on the year heading into Friday and was the lone goal scorer in the Crusaders 2-1 win on January 16th.
Saturday will be a tough test for the Crusaders as they will be playing their third game in four days.
“We need to stick to the plan, play together and be smart!” Notes Fragle on going up against Fort McMurray.
It has been the worst month of the season for the Crusaders, so far. With two games left in January the team can vindicate as disappointing start in 2015 with a couple of wins. And it looks like the team is headed in the right direction with points in three straight games and four out of the last five.
Fragle sees that his group is on the rise.
“We are trending the right way but still searching for more consistency out of everyone.”
-Story By Taylor Medak