Edmonton-area AJHL teams on different paths

Title: Edmonton-area AJHL teams on different paths
Date: January 2, 2013
Original Source: The Edmonton Journal
Synopsis: I am doing a short internship over the holidays at The Edmonton Journal. My latest piece was a feature on two rival AJHL hockey teams heading in different directions in the standings. This article appeared in the Jan. 3 edition of the Edmonton Journal.

The Spruce Grove Saints and Sherwood Park Crusaders head into the new year on divergent paths, but the second half of the Alberta Junior Hockey League season should prove exciting for both teams.

The Saints sit in first place in the North Division with a 24-9-6 record, having won seven of their last eight games and 10 of 12.

The Crusaders, meanwhile, dropped three of their last four games to fall into sixth place. But they are only 16 points back of the Saints in the tightly grouped standings.

“The second half is going to be ultra-competitive,” said Saints head coach and general manager Jason McKee. “There’s really not a lot of room for error.”

Both teams are on the road when the AJHL schedule resumes after a few weeks off for the holidays. The Crusaders play the Olds Grizzlys on Thursday in their first game since Dec. 21; the Saints’ game Friday against the Grand Prairie Storm is their first action since Dec. 22.

It can be difficult to carry momentum over long breaks, but all of the teams are in the same position. The time off won’t be a valid excuse for either team, and it’s imperative for both squads to start the new year hot. For Sherwood Park, it’s a matter of making the playoffs and trying to climb the standings. For Spruce Grove, it’s building on the first half and peaking at the right time for the playoffs.

“I think the first half went well,” said McKee. “We’re a young team and we found ways to win games. It’s important to get better as the year goes on.

“The biggest thing is we understand what our identity is and what works for us. When we’re willing to do those things, we’ve had success.”

The message from McKee is clear: There is no time to enjoy the success from the first half from a team that’s built its record and reputation on gritty play can’t stop working hard.

Spruce Grove is without the services of one of its top defencemen, Brandon Hickey, who is currently with Team Pacific in the world under-17 championship, where he’s logged a pair of assists through three games.

Hickey is the second Saint to leave for international play this season. Dylan Richard had a goal and three assists in four games with Team West, which won a silver medal in the Junior A Hockey Challenge in November.

Richard is among the top scorers in the AJHL, ranking 14th with 34 points despite playing fewer games than anyone else in the top 20. His offence has helped the Saints become the third-highest scoring team in the league and helped him earn a scholarship with Penn State University, whom he recently committed to for next season.

The Crusaders recently loaned a player to the Edmonton Oil Kings, but won’t be short-handed. Defenceman Ben Carroll scored three assists in three Western Hockey League games during the AJHL break, but will be in the Sherwood Park lineup Thursday before rejoining the Oil Kings on Saturday.

Up front, the Crusaders have been led by a trio of high-scoring 20-year olds in Garth Wallin, Danny Smith and Stefan Bazar. The Crusaders are a young team outside of the three veterans, making the second half playoff chase an excellent learning opportunity.

Whether the two Edmonton-area teams continue on opposite paths, converge or both start moving upward, it will be an exciting second half. The two teams are set to meet on Jan. 25 in Sherwood Park.


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