Enlightened Eagles tie up Wolverines

Enlightened Eagles tie up Wolverines

It was lesson learned and applied for the Canmore Eagles as they gained a split with the Whitecourt Wolverines in the opening two games of their best-of-seven Alberta Junior Hockey League semifinal series clash.

No. 7 seed Canmore went into No. 1 Whitecourt buoyed by the success of their recent play-in sweep over the No. 11 Fort McMurray Oil Barons and six-game series win over the No. 2 Lloydminster Bobcats. At times in those matchups, it looked almost easy for the high-flying Eagles. They found a different cat waiting for them in the Whitecourt barn.

The Wolverines were full value for their league-topping performance during the regular season in the opening game, showcasing their own top-end defence as goaltender Lukas Renaud made 36 saves in a 3-0 victory on Friday, March 29.

Goals came from Colby Browne, in the second period, and Kaiden Wiltsie and Joey Melo, in the third period as Whitecourt fired 38 shots on Canmore netminder Matthew Malin. The final goal was a power-play marker, as the Wolverines went 1-for-5 while the Eagles were 0-for-3 against a team that was the least penalized over the course of the regular season.

Whitecourt won 20 of its 30 home games in the regular season and took another five games to overtime or a shootout before losing, plus three home-ice wins over the Camrose Kodiaks in the five games it took to dispatch the No. 8 seed in the opening round. They looked full of confidence in Game 1.

Renaud was a bit of a surprise starter although he did start twice against Camrose in the first round but was pulled after one period in his second appearance in Game 4 and the only Kodiaks win. The Montreal native did play twice in the regular season against Canmore going 2-0 with a 1.50 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage.

Nicholas Avakyan had to take a spot on the bench for Game 1 despite a 3-0 record in four appearances against Camrose with a 1.06 GAA and a .969 S/Pct.  Avakyan is a late season addition from the WHL replacing AJHL top goaltender award winner Ben Charette, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury during a practice in late January.

It was no surprise when the Wolverines came back with Renaud the following night, Saturday, March 30, but the Eagles were ready to apply the teachings from that opening game loss, and despite going down on three occasions fought back to pinch a 4-3 victory in the final few seconds, tying the series at one win apiece.

Canmore adapted its offensive game to put greater emphasis on creating chances rather than throwing the puck at the goal, played a more disciplined game between whistles, and just wouldn’t surrender the result this night – and it was a late one as the game start time was pushed to 8:30 p.m. to accommodate the Alberta U18AA championship tournament also being contested at JDA Place.

Spencer Rheaume scored the first two goals for Whitecourt, including the only goal of the opening period.

Zach Coutu scored his fifth of the playoffs at the very end of a 4-on-3 power play at 7:19 of the second period. The tally, which ties him for the lead for most AJHL playoff goals, came from the top of the right-wing circle and though not hard or high seemed to befuddle Renaud.

Three more goals came over the next six minutes: Rheaume’s power-play goal, and his fourth goal of the playoffs, would put Whitecourt back on top at 9:44; Canmore got back on even terms on Nathan MacPherson-Ridgewell’s second of the playoffs at 11:15; followed by Travis Verbeek’s third playoff goal, a shorthanded marker, at 13:06.

Special teams certainly played their part in the second period and were instrumental in the Eagles coming back to tie this contest in the third period. Canmore was shorthanded just three times in the game, all in the first two periods, and were 1-for-2 with the man advantage through two periods.

Trailing by one goal, the Eagles would get two more power plays in the third period when Wolverine Jalen Bianchet was assessed a double minor for kneeing. The Eagles pounced, with Hudson scoring the tying goal just 24 seconds into the first penalty. The third-year Eagle had just two regular-season goals in 56 games but scored his third of the post-season when he skated down the right-wing and from near the goal line and near the boards fired the puck on goal, hitting Renaud, who was kneeling to guard the near post, on the far pad and deflecting between his legs at 13:09.

All that hard work to keep on coming back was then rewarded when Logan Ziegler scored the game winner, his third goal of the playoffs, with 19 seconds to play, deflecting a one-timer from the right side just inside the blue line taken by Hudson. The puck sailed past Renaud’s right shoulder.

The heroic efforts weren’t quite done this night though. It required an amazing final second save by Malin, stretching back with his right pad to deny the Wolverines the tying goal just before the buzzer sounded to bring this treat of a game to its conclusion.

Canmore outshot Whitecourt 28-24 on the night with Malin’s continued strong play in these playoffs – a 2.36 GAA and a .908 S/Pct. – keeping another WHL’er on the Eagles bench in Matthew Kieper, who has yet to feature in these playoffs.

Rheaume’s two goals gives him nine points in the playoffs, tops on Whitecourt. Rhett Dekowny leads all Canmore scorers, picking up his sixth assist of the playoffs to also go to nine points.

Eagles Logan Ziegler, Brody Tallman and Tyler Loughman are all on eight points through eight playoff games. In addition to scoring his third goal on Saturday, Ziegler also had one assist. Tallman had one assist and has two goals and six assists. Loughman picked up two helpers on Saturday and has one goal and a playoff-leading seven assists.

Canmore rookie Stefan Serediak made his playoff debut on Saturday, making his presence felt when he took on Whitecourt’s Hunter Motley in a spirited fight midway through the third period.

Canmore defenceman Casey Black had to sit Saturday’s game with a lower body injury. He should be back for Game 3.

The series resumes in Canmore on Tuesday, April 2, with Game 4 on Wednesday, April 3. Game times are 7 p.m. at the Canmore Recreation Centre. Tickets are available at canmoreeagles.ca. The series will feature a Game 5 in Whitecourt on Friday, April 5. If necessary, Game 6 is Sunday, April 7 in Canmore, beginning at 5 p.m., and Game 7 is in Whitecourt on Tuesday, April 9.

The winner will take on the either the No. 3 Calgary Canucks or No. 5 Drumheller Dragons for the AJHL championship. The Canucks lead the series 2-0 after posting home-ice wins of 5-2 on Friday and 3-2 in overtime on Saturday.