Tait: Spruce Grove Saints put last year’s disappointing division final behind them
There might be added incentive for the Spruce Grove Saints night when they face the Whitecourt Wolverines on Thursday, but they’re not admitting it.
It’s Round 3 of the Alberta Junior Hockey League playoffs.
In last year’s third round, the Saints were surprisingly bounced by the Fort McMurray Oil Barons in Game 7.
“Different team,” Saints general manager and coach Jason McKee said of the best-of-seven series.
“This is a new group and it’s about playing well right now. We are hoping for an exciting series that our fans can come out to support us and be able to watch some very entertaining hockey.”
The Saints, who got a first-round bye for finishing in first place in the North Division, eliminated the Sherwood Park Crusaders in six games in the semifinals.
McKee sees the division final as a chance for the Saints to further improve.
“We need to minimize their strengths and attack the areas of their game that they struggle with,” McKee said.
Whitecourt GM and coach Joey Bouchard sees a team game contributing to success.
“Our intensity and speed,” Bouchard said of two things he is especially pleased with. “(We need) contribution from all four lines , six defence and great goaltending.
“I am expecting great goaltending. Both teams have depth in every position. The team that wins the most battles and executes their game plan will most likely come out on top of this series.”
The Wolverines eliminated the Bonnyville Pontiacs in the second round in five games. In the first round best-of-five series, Whitecourt upset the Oil Barons in five games.
As for the Saints, Bouchard calls them a “structured hockey team that plays very well defensively and lots of speed.”
Game 2 goes Saturday night in Spruce Grove and Bouchard expects a number of Whitecourt fans to make the 150-km drive south for the game.
“We even had a fan bus travel to Bonnyville in Game 5 to support their (Whitecourt) hockey team,” he said.
The series heads to Whitecourt for Games 3 and 4 on Monday and Wednesday.
McKee knows the Saints have their work cut out for them.
“(They are) fast and highly skilled,” he said of the Wolverines. “We need to manage the puck well.”
It’s a family affair until playoffs.
Edmonton Oil Kings scout Bob McGill’s son Ryan is head coach of the Kootenay Ice.
Is there any mutual family support?
“Not in the playoffs,” Bob said late last week. “It’s all business.”
The Lethbridge Hurricanes fired head coach Rich Preston earlier this week and I can’t help but wonder if Oil Kings assistant coach Steve Hamilton will be a candidate to replace him.
Hamilton has been running the Oil Kings’ defence for the past three seasons after a stellar career as a head coach in the AJHL.
If Hamilton is ready to jump up to a head job — and I think he is — Lethbridge could be his next stop.
Wayne Gretzky was in town Wednesday for a breakfast attended by Edmonton Oilers suite holders and sponsors.
In an informal question and answer session, Gretzky told the Hotel MacDonald crowd he had plans in the works to bring Gordie Howe as a surprise guest for the event.
In the end, it didn’t work out, but just the gesture shows Gretzky’s appreciation of Edmonton.
He is speaking at a Red Deer College event Thursday in Red Deer.
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