The road through the North Division, at least for now, still runs through Spruce Grove.
In a meeting between the last two undefeated teams in the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL), the Spruce Grove Saints came away with their eighth straight victory to start the season, earning a 4-1 decision over the Lloydminster Bobcats, who had their winning streak snapped at seven games. Lloydminster allowed zero shots in the first 12 minutes of the first period, outshooting the Saints 12-0 before Nicolas Correale scored on just the third shot of the period for Spruce Grove.
From there, despite being outshot 38-17, the Saints would find three more goals on their opportunities, while the Bobcats found themselves unable to capitalize, giving them their first taste of adversity this season after starting 7-0.
“What you saw tonight was a team learning how to win versus one that knows how to win,” said Bobcats coach Gord Thibodeau.
“They didn’t need many scoring chances to score four goals. They might have had seven or eight all game, we had about 15 and didn’t bury the puck. That is the difference in the game.”
The greatest opportunity for the Bobcats came on the power play, however, out of seven chances with the man-advantage, Lloydminster could only find the back of the net once midway through the third period, as Mackenzie Bauer scored his first as a Bobcat. But by then the Saints had already scored four, including Austin Hunter and Riley Simpson in the second period and Jake Mykitiuk in the third.
Goalie Brett Zarowny made 37 saves for the Saints, most of which were either directly into his chest or fully seen, as Lloydminster provided little traffic in front of the crease. Thibodeau said simply that skilled teams find a way to finish goals and unfortunately, Lloydminster wasn’t able to finish on 37 shot opportunities on Tuesday night.
“You can’t blame your goalie or your defence, you have to score some goals when you get 40 shots,” said Thibodeau. “We didn’t do enough around the cage and give credit to their goaltender, but a large part of that is we are not bearing down around the net. There was traffic there, but it was mostly their guys though. We were content to stand on the outside and wait for bounces and it didn’t happen.”
See “Bobcats,” Page 28
Pierce Diamond got the start for the Bobcats for the second straight game as regular starter Alex Leclerc was serving his second game of his five game suspension for kicking a player during last Friday night’s game against Whitecourt. Despite playing the Saints high-powered offence for the first time in his career, Diamond said he could have done a better job in net and gave his team a better chance to keep their streak alive.
“I didn’t think I gave the guys much of a chance,” said Diamond. “As a team we played pretty good, especially through the first half of the game, but I need to be better to give us a chance throughout the whole game.”
Tuesday night’s game wasn’t just a meeting between the two best teams in the AJHL, as earlier Tuesday morning the Canadian Junior Hockey League released their top 20 rankings for October. Spruce Grove was ranked No. 1, while the Bobcats were right behind them in the No. 2 spot.
With adversity behind them, the focus now turns to the AJHL Showcase where the schedule for the Bobcats doesn’t get any easier. Today they will play the Camrose Kodiaks who currently sit on top of the South Division with a 6-1-0 record, then they will play an Friday afternoon game against the Brooks Bandits, who were last year’s runners-up in the Gas Drive Cup. And after a trip to Drayton Valley next Tuesday, Lloydminster will have a rematch with the Saints on Oct. 7.
“Whether they get the message or not, I guess we will find out in the next couple of games,” said Thibodeau. “It is a tough road for us right now, we have adversity behind us and there is no excuses.”