Eagles face Wolverines

Eagles face Wolverines

The Canmore Eagles put a stop to the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s most potent offence, now the team needs to figure out a way of beating its stingiest defence.

The No. 7 seed of these AJHL playoffs, Canmore defeated the No. 2 Lloydminster Bobcats four wins to two in a first-round, best-of-seven series, outscoring their opponents 26-14 in the process. The Eagles’ reward is the No. 1 Whitecourt Wolverines, who took five games to dismiss the No. 8 Camrose Kodiaks, giving up just 10 goals en route to the second round.

The other second-round series features the No. 3 Calgary Canucks taking on the No. 5 Drumheller Dragons. The Canucks defeated the No. 6 Grande Prairie Storm in six games while the Dragons swept the No. 4 Bonnyville Pontiacs.

Both series begin Friday, March 29 in Whitecourt and Calgary.

Playoff Review

Canmore shutout Lloydminster twice in the six-game series. The Bobcats led the AJHL in team scoring with 211 goals with Caden Cabana topping all scorers with 27 goals and 42 assists for 69 points. Lloydminster’s captain though was held to just one goal and two assists for three points versus the Eagles. Only Ben Aucoin, who finished fifth in league scoring and only one of two players this season to crack 30 goals with 32 tallies among his 63 points, was able to produce any worthy playoff numbers for the Bobcats, finishing the series with four goals and three assists for seven points.

Canmore’s defence certainly showed it was up for the challenge against Lloydminster, with Bobcats maybe fortunate in posting its two wins, both on home ice, in the series. A goal that wasn’t a goal to tie the game in Game 2 led to the Bobcats winning 4-3 in double overtime and a missed offside call on its opening goal of Game 5 helped the team to a 4-3 win.

In its wins, Canmore opened the series with an emphatic 8-3 win in Lloydminster, then won Games 3, 4 and 6 played on home ice by scores of 4-3, 3-0 and 5-0, respectively. The Eagles outscored the Bobcats 20-6 and outshot the Bobcats 156-78 in its four wins.

Canmore had seven players average at least one point per game in the series led by Rhett Dekowny with three goals and five assists for eight points. Team captain Brody Tallman scored twice and had five assists for seven points. Zach Coutu led all Eagles goal scorers with four to go with two assists for six points. Ethan Look and Tyler Loughman each had one goal and five assists. Nathan MacPherson-Ridgewell missed Games 4 and 5 but in the four games he did play had one goal and three assists for four points.

Goaltender Matthew Malin played all 389 minutes of this series, finishing with two shutouts, a 2.16 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage.

Prior to taking on Lloydminster, the Eagles dispatched the No. 10 Fort McMurray Oil Barons in three games in a best-of-five play-in series. Malin also recorded a shutout in that series as Canmore won its games by scores of 5-0, 4-1 and 3-2.

Playoff Preview

There will be no reprieve for Malin or his teammates heading into the next round as they take on the top team from this past season and one that boasts the league’ most efficient defence. Whitecourt gave up just 152 goals in 57 regular-season games and, as previously mentioned, 10 in five playoff games.

This despite No. 1 netminder Ben Charette suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in a practice in late January. It didn’t stop the Aurora, Ont., native from being named the league’s most outstanding goaltender in the season-ending awards as well as selection to the AJHL first all-star squad.

His replacement is Nicholas Avakyan, who was acquired from the WHL Portland Winterhawks, where he played 17 games after being traded mid-season from the Tri City Americans, where he spent the previous two seasons. The Glendale, Calif., native was unremarkable in six regular-season games but has really shined in the playoffs, posting a 1.06 GAA and a .969 S/Pct. in four games.

The Wolverines also boast the AJHL rookie of the year in forward Joey Melo, who recorded 22 goals and 21 assists for 43 points.

The team is coached by Shawn Martin, who was named the AJHL coach of the year for a second successive season.

The leading regular-season scorer for Whitecourt was Colby Browne with 26 goals and 42 assists for 68 points, second best in the league.  Travis Verbeek finished the season with 28 goals and 32 assists for 60 points and was named to the AJHL second all-star team.

In the first-round win over the Kodiaks, it was Spencer Rheaume leading all Wolverines scorers with two goals and five assists for seven points.

Canmore has its own league award winners and all-stars. Brody Mortensen was named the league’s most outstanding defenceman and a first team all-star, while Tallman was selected to the second all-star team after leading all AJHL defencemen in scoring in the regular season with 17 goals and 28 assists for 45 points.

Whitecourt won three of four regular-season meetings with Canmore: 7-0 in Canmore on Oct. 13; 6-1 in Whitecourt on Oct. 21; and 4-2 in Whitecourt on Jan. 13. The Eagles won the last encounter, 3-2 in Canmore on Jan. 25.

With the lopsided victories in the early part of the season, Whitecourt has a decided edge in the statistical department when it comes to head-to-head. The Wolverines power play is operating at 25 per cent (5-for-20) while the Eagles power play is 4.7 per cent (1-for-21).

Browne led all scorers in the regular season head-to-head with two goals and four assists for six points. Leading the Eagles was Logan Ziegler with two goals and one assist for three points.

The Eagles have not seen Avakyan but have faced backup goaltender Lukas Renaud, who appeared in two playoff games against the Kodiaks. In two regular-season meetings against the Eagles, Renaud was 2-0 with a 1.50 GAA and a .936 S/Pct.

In addition to the late season acquisition of Avakyan, Whitecourt added familiar faces to Canmore fans in Kyle Venneman, who played 2½ seasons with the Olds Grizzlys before making the move to the Wolverines on Nov. 29, and Zepher LaPlante, who was an Eagle for three games in the 2021-22 season before joining the Calgary Canucks for the 2022-23 season and up until Jan. 10 of this past regular season.

Games 1 and 2 of the series are in Whitecourt on Friday, March 29 and Saturday, March 30. The series switches to Canmore for Game 3 on Tuesday, April 2 and Game 4 on Wednesday, April 3. If necessary, Game 5 is in Whitecourt on Friday, April 5, Game 6 is in Canmore on Sunday, April 7, and Game 7 is in Whitecourt on Tuesday, April 9. Game times are 7 p.m. with an exception for Game 5 at the Canmore Recreation Centre which has a 5 p.m. start time.

Russ Ullyot