*record as of February 10th
SHERWOOD PARK, AB – There is a famous video from many years ago of NFL Hall of Fame Quarterback Joe Namath on the sidelines of a Monday Night Football game being interviewed. There is a famous answer and subsequent word that people tend to use when describing the most recent tough times, ‘struggling’. It is also usually said with a slight slur as that is how the former NFL star said it on national tv, later revealing he was, as everyone had thought, inebriated.
Right now for the Sherwood Park Crusaders, that specific word is how one would describe the situation for the team of late.
Losers of five in a row and one win in their last seven games, the Crusaders are indeed, struggling.
“We are struggling. We are going to need a lot more from our entire group if we are going to battle for home ice advantage in the playoffs. We have ten games left and we are going to need to fix a lot of things going down the stretch, and if we can, we are still confident in the group we have. We just need to get back on track.” Says Crusaders Head Coach Adam Manah.
Manah’s group is amidst it’s second five game losing of the season, but compared to the one in late October, this feels worse for the group as at this point of the season they are not executing the things the coaching staff has been preaching all year.
The Crusaders have gone away from the basics in these last five games, going hard to the net, communicating, playing physical and being discipline.
The discipline has certainly been noteworthy.
Although they remain first in the league at fewest power play opportunities given up. In the last five games the Crusaders have given up an average of four power play opportunities to their opponent, prior to the losing streak their season average was 3.37 power plays given up per game.
Now, some games they have been perfect on the kill, but the time with only four or three skaters on the ice disrupts your flow and ability to generate momentum five on five.
Another foot note on the potential reasons for the Crusader struggles of late, the absence of their top Defenseman Ben McLeod.
The Crusader vet was injured in the 8-3 loss in Calgary on January 20th against the Canucks. Sherwood Park has gone 1-7-0 since McLeod sustained a lower body injury.
“There was a helpless feeling, there’s only so much I can talk about to the guys and the fact I couldn’t be out there playing and trying to do my part, it was frustrating.” Says McLeod, who will make his return to the lineup Saturday night.
“It’s definitely good to be back. I was going well without an injury and then a kind of unforeseen injury that took me out for a few games, but I’ll be at full strength and jumping right back into it.” Added McLeod.
The fourth year Crusader has had injury problems in every year he has suited up for Sherwood Park, but is hoping his presence will help his team get back to doing the right things, the right way.
“You can see how impactful he is to our lineup, in terms of what he brings to the table with his heart, character, compete, how he intimidates opponents with the way he plays. Ben is just a solid teammate for us, whether it’s in the room or on the ice. To have him back in the lineup will be a welcoming addition.” Noted Manah.
The two weekend opponents might just be what the doctor ordered for this Crusader team.
A return to divisional play and two matchups against two fierce rivals in the Bonnyville Pontiacs and Fort McMurray Oil Barons.
Saturday will mark the fourth meeting of the season between the Crusaders and Pontiacs with Bonnyville holding a slight edge with a record of 2-0-1.
Both teams will enter the game on a five game losing streak after Pontiacs fell to the Whitecourt Wolverines 5-4 in a shootout on Friday night in Bonnyville.
The Pontiacs struggles relate to a rebuild year, with a young team and having traded their leading scorer in PJ Marrocco earlier in the year and veteran Derek Brown to the Vernon Vipers of the BCHL on January 9th, the growing pains have certainly showed themselves in the new year with team going 3-10-1.
Bonnyville also made a tweak in goal at the deadline, sending Sandro Silvestre to Quebec and acquiring ’98 born Goaltender Dario Latessa on deadline day.
However, despite all the changes, the Crusaders aren’t expecting anything different from the Pontiacs.
“You are always going to get the same thing with the Pontiacs. They work extremely hard and compete very hard. They aren’t going to surprise us, we know what to expect and we have to be ready to answer the bell.” Says Manah.
Bonnyville feels they can catch the Crusaders and even Grande Prairie in the standings, Saturday will be a good test for two desperate hockey teams.
On Sunday, the Crusaders will host the Fort McMurray Oil Barons for the third and final time this season, marking the end to a season series that has the Oil Barons winning it on paper, but Sherwood Park has played the MOB well for the majority of their contests.
“We’ve had some good efforts in four out of the five meetings, at the end of day it wasn’t good enough. We have one last matchup to see how we measure up, they are playing well right now. It will be a good test for us to see where we are at.” Points out Manah.
With the exception of the 5-1 loss on January 7th in Sherwood Park, it has been a one goal game, minus the empty net goal on November 3rd, between the Crusaders and Oil Barons.
The Oil Barons will be playing their third game in as many days on Sunday, a thrilling 5-4 OT win Friday night in Camrose and a Saturday contest in Drumheller could have the MOB looking for a weekend sweep against the Crusaders.
It certainly should be a playoff type feel on both Saturday and Sunday.
“I think we just have to keep it simple. Our practices this week have been bare bones and back to basics. We need to hit lots, talk lots and make simple plays. I think we’ve been trying to over complicate things.” Says McLeod on the keys to the games this weekend.
With the emergence of Lloydminster in the division, the Crusaders have certainly felt the pressure from afar, as they completed a six game stretch against the Viterra South Division, but some old fashioned divisional play, like we said, is certainly what the Crusaders need right now, and the Head Coach couldn’t agree more.
“This weekend we couldn’t have asked for two better opponents in terms of challenging our work ethic and compete level. We’re excited for that challenge.”
-Story by Taylor Medak
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