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Brooks and Whitecourt battle for AJHL Supremacy

By Neil Hilts on April 14, 2017

Whitecourt and Brooks clash in the AJHL finals for a first time playoff matchup between the two. The Bandits have appeared in five of the last six championships, while this is a franchise first for the Wolverines. (Brooks Bandits/Twitter)

For one team, the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) Finals are unfamiliar territory, but for the other, it’s a goal that has come to fruition quite often in recent years.

The Whitecourt Wolverines are making their first appearance in the AJHL finals, while the Brooks Bandits return to the championship for the fifth time in six years. Both teams were sensational throughout the year, with Brooks finishing first with an astounding 51-5-4 record, while Whitecourt was third overall at 41-13-6.

Brooks took both games against the Wolverines in the regular season, winning 5-2 in September and 4-1 in November. The teams have undergone several changes since then, so it’ll be tough to read much into those.

The Bandits have played seven less games than the Wolverines this postseason, which could be a huge factor in regards to fatigue and player health. However, both teams had almost a week off ahead of the finals.

Entering the finals, Whitecourt’s Justin Young and Joseph Nardi lead the playoffs in scoring with 21 points in 16 games apiece. Young has 13 goals for four more than Brooks’ leading scorer Parker Foo, who is averaging a goal per game with nine. Looking at points per game, the Bandits have three of the top four, including Josh McKechney, who has an astonishing 19 points in nine contests.

As for the goalie matchup, Brooks’ Mitchel Benson has turned aside 209 of 221 shots with a .946 save percentage, 1.31 GAA and three shutouts. At the other end, Pierce Diamond is 11-5, sitting with a 2.13 GAA and .913 save percentage. He has faced around 170 more shots than Benson in playoffs, although Benson saw about 110 more during the regular season. Both have to be a little sore this late in the year.

The player to watch in the series is Brooks defenceman Cale Makar. Makar, recently listed at #15 in the latest ISS Hockey rankings, could even go in the top five in the NHL draft and has 12 points the playoffs. He’s a quarterback on the powerplay and huge part of the Bandits.

Young needs to continue his remarkable season to give Whitecourt a chance, and after a career-high 69 points during the season and playoff-leading 13 goals, he’s lethal.

Based on experience, Whitecourt has a slight coaching advantage with the winningest coach in AJHL history, Gord Thibodeau, sitting behind the bench. Thibodeau won his only championship in 2006 with Fort McMurray and is looking ring No. 2 in his historic career.

Not to be outdone, Brooks’ bench boss, Ryan Papaioannou, is the most successful coach since he entered the league, picking up championships in 2012, 2013 and 2016. He’s hoping for his second back-to-back crown.

SEMIFINALS
After a less than stellar regular season matchup record against Fort McMurray, including losing the top seed in the North in the final game of the year, Whitecourt exacted their revenge.

They scored at least five goals in their four wins while taking the series 4-2, showing what the offence is capable of. The Oil Barons won Game 1 4-2, but Whitecourt won four of the next five including two on the road. Fort McMurray managed more than just three goals in only one game during the series.

In the last round, Brooks beat Okotoks 4-1 and in the first game of the series, the Bandits soared to a 9-2 win. Okotoks rebounded with a 3-2 overtime win, but the Bandits then won 6-2, 3-0 and finally 3-2 in overtime in Game 5 to take the series. They swept Olds in the previous round and are 8-1 in the postseason.

Averaging 6.2 goals-for and just 1.3 against, the Bandits are the series favourites, but Whitecourt is a resilient squad and were the second highest scoring team during the regular season. Their best chance at victory will be to outgun Brooks.

The AJHL Championship gets this weekend in Brooks, with Games 1 and 2 on Friday and Saturday, leaving little time for either team to reset in between.

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By Neil Hilts| April 14, 2017
Categories:  Junior

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