*record as of January 5th
SHERWOOD PARK, AB – With a new year, comes new opportunities. For the Sherwood Park Crusaders, they are hoping a change in the calendar year can ignite a prosperous 2018 portion of their season.
The group heads into 2018 with a record of 17-18-2, good for fifth in the Viterra North division with 36 points.
There are still aspirations of obtaining home ice advantage in the first round of the AJHL playoffs, and the steps to that goal continue this weekend against a pair of teams ahead of them in the standings in Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray.
Sherwood Park is coming off a split last weekend in Fort McMurray against the Oil Barons.
Both games to end off 2017 were one goal games with the Crusaders taking the first of the two game set, 5-4 and losing 3-2 to the MOB the very next night.
“It was important for us to get the split up in Fort McMurray. It's a very tough building to go into and win, and we weren't sharp in the first period of game one, but the back 40 minutes were real good. Credit goes to the group for sharpening our game up, and finding a way to win that hockey game. In game two we had the lead, and for the most part played a pretty solid 50 minute game. We had three glaring mistakes, and a good team like the Oil Barons will make you pay. All in all, we'll take the split on the road.” Says Crusaders Head Coach Adam Manah.
The story of the weekend was Crusader Forward Dylan Stewart, who scored four goals and added an assist in the 5-4 victory, which was the Oil Barons first loss in regulation on home ice.
“I wasn’t expecting too much, being the first game after the [holiday] break, I just wanted to keep things simple. The second period rolled around, I got a real good bounce on my first one…the puck just kept finding me and when the third one went in I felt really good and I kept trucking, eventually in the third, getting the game winner. It felt really good as we hadn’t beat that team yet.” Said Stewart on his career night.
The 20 year old certainly has taken off since mid-November, scoring a total of 22 points in 11 of the last 14 games.
“What more can you say about Dylan right now. He's really impressed everyone with his overall play the last two months, and is working extremely hard to be one of our best players on any given night. He threw the team on his back that night and it's rare you see a player score four consecutive goals in a row. He went to the hard areas, and scored all of his goals within five to ten feet of the net.” Noted Manah.
The next night the Crusaders unfortunately could not duplicate the victory as well as the success on the power play, going scoreless on five attempts, and allowing two short handed goals in the process.
“It just came down to execution. We had some good opportunities, but just didn't capitalize like we did on Friday night. That happens sometimes especially when you're going against a good penalty killing team. They made some adjustments, and their goalie was solid on Saturday night.” Said Manah.
With the two short handed goals against, it brought the total to nine on the season, which is second worst behind Olds in the entire AJHL.
“We need to manage the puck better on the power play. It's no secret we have 4 forwards on our first unit so there is a little bit of a risk there, but they have to learn how to take care of the puck when they are out there.” Points out Manah.
All in all, the Crusader played excellent against the Oil Barons, as they’ve done all year and it should be interesting when the two teams renew acquaintances on Sunday.
But first, the team will need to focus on the team they feel that can catch for that elusive fourth spot.
The Grande Praire Storm make their final appearance of the season at the Sherwood Park Arena on Saturday night, it will also be the final meeting of the regular season between the two clubs.
It’s been a home team season series, with the Storm going 3-0-0 at Revolution Arena in Grande Prairie and Sherwood Park going 2-0-0.
The home team has outscored the opponent 27-14 in the season series.
“So far it's seemed like whoever the home team is they execute better. For whatever reason the road team hasn't been able to get it done yet, but that could be credit to both teams doing their job on home ice.” Said Manah on the home ice advantage through the first five meetings.
Sherwood Park will need to continue what they’ve done at home against the Storm and that is contain Grande Prairie’s top guns.
AJHL leading scorer Justin Bernier has only one goal against the Crusaders on the road while team leading goal scorer Edouard Michaud has a pair out of the five goals scored by the Storm in two games at the Sherwood Park Arena.
The Crusaders will look focus on their game plan and try to diffuse a sort of “track meet” style of hockey game, similar to what we’ve seen with the Crusaders and Whitecourt Wolverines in years past.
“The keys won't vary too much from the first five times we've seen them. For us as a team we know we don't want to get into a run and gun game with them where we are trading off scoring chances. We'll need to be aware of their top line, and play well defensively. Be smart with our offensive zone entries as we know their goalie likes to play the puck a lot to start their breakouts, and lastly it'll come down to our special teams getting the job done.” Says Manah on the keys against the Storm.
After Saturday, the Crusaders will return to the Sherwood Park Arena on Sunday afternoon to host the Fort McMurray Oil Barons.
The group will certainly look to build off the success they had last week up north, as well try and replicate some of the things that allowed them to get up 3-0 on the MOB during their last visit to the Sherwood Park Arena.
Every game has essentially been a one goal game against the Oil Barons this season, they are one of the top teams in the country and seem to bring out the best in the Crusaders so far this season.
“Each game has been extremely tight, and have been playoff type games. They are good for us to play in, and in terms of our play we feel we've been close with them. Obviously, we've only won one out of four so far, which means we still have room to improve and find ways to win these tight contests.” Points out Manah.
The Crusaders hope a little rust might be upon both opponents this weekend as both the Storm and the Oil Barons will be playing their third game in as many days when they face the Crusaders.
However, coach Manah is spinning that statement the other way.
“The starts in both games will be very important. Sometimes teams can find ways to be their sharpest in the third game, which means we have to make sure we prepare the right way, and our work ethic has to be the biggest standout factor of both games.”
With the CJHL/AJHL trade deadline coming on January 10th, teams will have to be down to 23 players carded on their roster. The Crusaders are in the clear when it comes having to move a player to meet the criteria.
General Manager Kyle Chase should be relatively quiet on deadline day unless a deal is brought to the Crusaders that they could not possibly refuse.
-Story by Taylor Medak
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