The Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) has their own Final Four commencing this weekend, as the Division Semifinals for the Viterra North and South are set.
The Brooks Bandits, the nation’s No. 1 team, will battle rival Okotoks, while up North, the Division’s top two teams will fight for a spot in the League Championship.
Fort McMurray edged out Whitecourt on the final day of the season to earn the first round bye. It seems to have paid off, as Whitecourt has played 10 games so far in the playoffs, compared to five for the Oil Barons, who have also had more rest days.
The Oil Barons beat the No. 5 Bonnyville Pontiacs 4-1 in the last round. Although they dropped Game 1 2-1 in overtime, they stormed back to win four in a row. Goalie Eric Szudor played well for Fort McMurray, finishing the series with a 1.52 GAA and .948 save percentage.
Defenceman Curtis Roach leads the team in scoring with six points, while WHL veteran and Fort McMurray native Brandon Ralph has three goals and five points and Will Conley has four goals in five games.
Drawing the seventh-place Grand Prairie Storm in round one, Whitecourt dominated in Games 1 and 3, winning 6-0 and 6-1. Game 2 was the only close one, which saw the Wolverines win 3-2 in overtime as they fired 63 shots to the Storm’s 21.
In round two, Whitecourt was matched up with the Spruce Grove Saints, a team that had advanced to the division finals every year since 2007. The Saints took Game 1 on Whitecourt ice by a score of 3-1, but the Wolverines won the next three and looked to be in command of the series, going up 3-1. The Saints won the next two, 4-1 and 2-1 in overtime, to force a decisive game seven.
The Saints fell flat in the clincher, managing just 18 shots to Whitecourt’s 35. The Wolverines scored four straight to go up 4-0, and after a quick rebuttal from Spruce Grove, they played stout defence to the finish, advancing to round three for the first time since 2013 with the 4-1 win.
Entering the semis, Whitecourt has four veterans averaging at least a point per game. Goalie Pierce Diamond has a solid 1.74 GAA and 7-3 record but will face a rested Eric Szudor from Fort McMurray.
During the season, Fort McMurray won the series 4-2 and outscored Whitecourt 17-14. In the final game of the year that decided the division, the Oil Barons won 3-2.
The South Finals was decided quickly, as both Okotoks and Brooks recorded sweeps over the opposition.
Facing the No. 7 Olds Grizzlys, the heavily favoured Bandits trounced their opponents in four games while only allowing three goals all series. Offence was firing on all cylinders as the Bandits won 9-0, 7-2, 8-1 and 8-0. Of the 18 skaters that played for Brooks in the last round, 15 have a point per game or better average and only two players were held without a point.
Meanwhile, the Oilers have won all seven playoff games, first besting the Camrose Kodiaks 3-0 before dispatching the No. 2 seed Calgary Canucks in four straight. While their offence wasn't on the same page as Brooks’, the Oilers had allowed two goals in four games and pitched two shutouts during their series win over the Canucks.
Brooks won the season series 4-2 and outscored Okotoks 18-9, putting them as the favourites, but if Okotoks and goalie Riley Morris can withstand the Bandits’ offence, it could go down to the wire.
Through the semis, Whitecourt’s Joseph Nardi and Justin Young, 16 and 13 points respectively, lead scoring. Brooks’ Parker Foo has 11 in just four games, leading the points-per-game average at 2.8. His teammate Josh McKechney has 10 points and a 2.5 per-game average.
Brooks’ Mitchel Benson is 4-0 with a .075 GAA, just ahead of 7-0 Morris who holds a 0.80 GAA. Morris has the higher save percentage at .971, but Benson is just behind at .966.
Both series start Friday, March 31. Brooks is hosting Okotoks and Fort McMurray is welcoming Whitecourt.
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