*record as of March 2nd
SHERWOOD PARK, AB – You really cant draw up a better test this weekend for the Sherwood Park Crusaders to end their season and gage where they stand heading into the post season as they face the top team in the Viterra North Division for a home and home versus the Spruce Grove Saints.
Winners of five in a row, the Crusaders are arguably the hottest team in the North right now, and one of the hottest teams in the entire AJHL next to the Okotoks Oilers.
Sherwood Park matched their season high winning streak on Wednesday night with a 3-0 victory over the Lloydminster Bobcats on the road.
It was a solid effort from top to bottom and Head Coach Adam Manah was pleased with the way his group started early in the Border City.
“We were able to take the crowd out early with our fist goal ten minutes in…typically Lloydminster is a tough place to go into and win, it just seemed like they had a dull night and we were able to take advantage of it,” says Manah, “We were able to go in and play a sound road game. The guys played exceptionally well, especially defensively and all the way around it was a real good effort to keep us in the hunt for fourth.”
There are a lot of intangibles on the rhyme and reason to the Crusaders latest in-season success, specifically, it has been the play of the team’s veterans.
20 year old Dylan Stewart has a five game point streak and added a goal and an assist on Wednesday to bring his five game total to nine.
“We were told in the pre-game meeting to go to the net, on my goal I did, there was a nice shot from Payton [McIsaac] from the point. On my assist, I was quickly able to steal the puck at their blueline and I knew Ryan [Cox] was down low, so I didn’t think twice about giving it to him.” Said Stewart.
“I thought it was a gritty performance by us, everyone worked really hard and it was nice to a get a shutout for [Rishaugh]. I thought we played a full sixty minutes and that’s been a common theme with us in the last five games.” Added Stewart.
It was the third team shutout for Sherwood Park of the season, the Crusaders haven’t had more than two shutouts in a season since 2014-15.
Affiliate Goaltender Ben Rishaug became the second Crusader Goalie since 2005 to earn his first career shutout in his second career start.
The 6’3, 2000 born Sherwood Park product had quite the week as his club team was eliminated in the AMHL playoffs right before he started last Saturday at the Sherwood Park Arena against the Calgary Canucks.
Rishaug has had to deal with some adversity of late and was rewarded on Wednesday night.
“We are pretty happy with Ben. We’ve been communicating with him, the fact he was coming off an injury, his timing and everything else might not have been there in his first two games, but we know what he brings to the table and that’s why we have him affiliated. He’s a good Goaltender and he made everything look easy on Wednesday night. When he was tested, he was good.” Says Manah on his affiliate netminder.
Rishaug will make his third straight start Friday night in Spruce Grove as both Brandon Vogel and Josh Brindza remain on the sidelines.
Even though there are two games left in the season for both teams, there is a ton to play for.
For Sherwood Park, they are still in the hunt for fourth place in the division, which would mean home ice advantage in their first round, best of five series against the Grande Prairie Storm. The Crusaders sit a point back of the Storm heading into the weekend with both teams having a pair of games.
Essentially the Crusaders need to win out as the Storm host the Lloydminster Bobcats and hope the Bobcats can steal at least one game.
If somehow the Crusaders and Storm are tied in points after the weekend, the Crusaders would win out in a tie-breaker having more regulation time wins.
“We are well aware of what’s in front of us and that’s a chance at fourth place. We are going to focus on what we can control. The matchup this weekend is going to be very tough, we haven’t had any success against Spruce Grove all year but what a perfect time for us to rise up to the occasion, to not only make a push for fourth but to be playing the best hockey we can heading into the playoffs.” States Manah.
Regardless if Sherwood Park catches Grande Prairie, at least a win over the Saints would bode well for the Crusaders as the Saints have been the one opponent that has completely dominated them this season.
“They are a good skating team that’s fast, they move the puck extremely well and they attack you. They are able to get clean exits out of their own end with their Defensemen being strong and they have good goaltending.” Said Manah on why the Saints are so strong.
A record of 0-4-0 against the Saints and being outscored 19-5, Spruce Grove has had their way with their cross-town rival this season.
“We got to have belief, Spruce Grove is a really good team. It’s nice having meaningful games this year, we have to keep playing the way we’ve been playing. It’s obviously going to be very hard but sneaking a win over them would feel great.” Added Stewart.
Maybe one of the biggest stories heading into this weekend is the fact that Saints Forward and League MVP Chris Van Os-Shaw is on the verge of history.
The Alaska-Anchorage commit is a goal away from being the first player since Bonnyville Pontiacs Forward Mark Letestu in 2005-2006 to score 50 goals in a single season.
The AJHL’s leading scorer is also riding an 18 game point streak that has accumulated to a total of 43 points in that span.
Slowing down Van Os-Shaw will be crucial to the Crusaders success.
“We need to make sure he doesn’t get the puck.” Jokes Manah.
“We are going to try and keep a close eye on him and try to get the matchups as best we can against him, especially on the backend with having [Ben] McLeod and [Tyler Jette] out on the ice. We’re not the home team on Friday so we will do our best, but in reality, we do have to make sure that he doesn’t get the puck too often.” Notes the Head Coach.
There is also one other storyline that could be brought up, even though the team does not want to look ahead, if they are successful in the opening round of the playoffs against Grande Prairie. A Sherwood Park, Spruce Grove matchup is likely with the Saints claiming another division title.
At least a win this weekend would set the tone heading into the post season should the matchup occur.
-Story by Taylor Medak
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