It has been a few years since I’ve had to type out the phrase ‘the struggling Sherwood Park Crusaders’. Yet, here we are. The Cru are heading into just their fourth regular-season game of the 2020/21 campaign and it already feels like their backs are up against the wall. They’ve started the year off with three consecutive losses and the third loss, which came last night at the hands of the Drayton Valley Thunder, was ugly.
After getting off to a good start last night at the Drayton Valley Omniplex and grabbing an early lead, the Crusaders would allow six unanswered goals to the Thunder. It was about as uninspired as I’ve seen a Sherwood Park Crusaders team play in some time. They would go on to lose the game 6-2.
To be blunt about it, this team appears to be a shadow of its former self. That might be harsh, but the first three games of the season have given me little reason to feel otherwise.
Still, when you look at the talent on this roster and people leading the organization, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where they don’t bounceback at some point. That’s exactly what they were trying to do tonight as they welcomed the Drayton Valley Thunder to the Sherwood Park Arena to finish off the home and home series. Here’s how things played out:
This team needed a strong start tonight and that’s exactly what they got as just a few minutes into the game when Dylan Guenther made a diving play to knock the puck over to Kyle Crnkovic who found the back of the net. Guenther would waste little time putting the Crusaders up 2-0, scoring a goal of his own less than a minute later.
We were just 2:46 into the opening frame but the Crusaders were looking sharp and in control of this game. That didn’t last long.
The Thunder cut the deficit in half as Philadelphia Flyers draft pick Connor McLennon made a nice play getting the puck to Tanner Hopps, who beat Jordan Frey.
That goal didn’t seem to deflate the home side though. They still generated some nice scoring chances in the minutes after the first Thunder goal and seemed like they were still in control of the game. But the ‘Hockey Gods’ can be cruel and just moments after the Crusaders had a quality scoring chance, Drayton Valley went back the other way and once again found the back of the net.
That goal did seem to deflate the Crusaders as they ran into some penalty trouble, which cost them. McLennon would add not one, but two powerplay goals before the end of the period, giving the Thunder a 4-2 lead.
After such a promising start, the Crusaders let the Thunder take over the game once again and after 20 minutes, it was not looking good for the boys in green.
In the final few minutes of the opening frame, the Crusaders started to generate some offence and they were able to continue doing that early in the second period. Their top line was controlling the puck in the offensive zone and they were getting some good chances. It just didn’t result in a goal.
They were getting chances but once again, they were quickly reminded just how cruel the sport can be as a bad bounce led to Colson Gengenbach being sprung on a breakaway. The 20-year-old forward broke in and fired it past Frey and made it a 5-2 game.
The game really started to open up after that with each team getting plenty of chances. As play-by-play man Brenden Escott said “the puck is bouncing around the ice like a ping pong ball”, and it really was. That didn’t last too long as the penalty parade continued when a pretty soft tripping call put the Thunder back on the powerplay.
That penalty call actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Cru. With just over ten minutes to go in the period, Ty Mueller chipped the puck up off the faceoff to Matt Savoie who used his breathtaking speed to burst into the offensive zone and fire a wrist shot past Eric Ward. The goal gave the Crusader’s life and cut the deficit to just two goals.
That would be the only time that Sherwood Park beat Eric Ward in the second period, and it wasn’t due to a lack of effort or chances, the 19-year-old was tremendous in the final ten minutes of the frame making a handful of strong stops, highlighted by a sensational cross-crease save on Dylan Guenther.
At the other end of the ice, Jordan Frey found his game as well. The Crusaders veteran goaltender would likely be the first to admit he wasn’t as sharp as he would have liked to be early in this game but he’s a massive reason why this game was only 5-3 heading into the third period.
The Crusaders got off to a tremendous start in the third period and were given plenty of great chances to get themselves back into this hockey game with a pair of powerplays. Despite plenty of zone time and a handful of shots on goal, they never found the back of the net. The powerplays did allow them to take back momentum and for the first half of the period, they really outplayed the Thunder, holding them to just one shot.
For ten minutes, it felt like they were on just a moment away from finding the back of the net and making this a one-goal game. That didn’t happen. Instead, they started making some mistakes with the puck in their own end and it eventually cost them as Dylan Price scored to make it a 6-3 game, effectively sealing the Crusader’s fate in this one.
The Crusaders would get a goal before the end of the game, with Vincent Scott getting his first of the season, but it would be too little, too late. Drayton Valley would get an empty-netter and win the game 7-4.
The Crusaders were a juggernaut last season, losing just nine games all year long a stark contrast to where they are now. They’ll have to dig deep and find some answers quickly. This team has plenty of talent and they’re good enough to win more than they lose, it’s just simply not clicking right now.
- The start was exactly what the Crusaders needed. At a point where a bad start could have really sunk them, it was good to see them come out of the gates strong.
- They showed a lot of fight at different points in the game. When they went down by three, they didn’t just fold. Also, they didn’t let the Thunder push them around. Although their discipline was a problem, and I’ll get to that in a second, having a team where players stand up for each other is very important. We saw that tonight.
- Their powerplay moves the puck incredibly well. When the WHL players leave, it will look a lot different but right now they’re a threat to score every time they’re up a man.
- Jordan Frey had a solid bounceback in the second period. Some big, big saves at points in the game where the Crusaders could not afford a goal against.
- Discipline was a big issue tonight. From poorly timed penalties to negating potential powerplays, their inability to stay out of the box really hurt them at points.
- Watching them throw away a really strong start was tough to watch. Once they gave up that second goal, it just felt like the wind was completely taken out of their sails. They needed someone to give them a spark to snap them out of the lull and they really didn’t get it.
- The one thing I didn’t like about their powerplay was the lack of traffic in front of Eric Ward at times. They have players with great shots, but that means nothing if you don’t have a body standing in front of the net.
Two defensemen on the Crusaders really caught my attention tonight. The first was Cale Ashcroft. The 16-year-old is one of the youngest players in the AJHL this season, but you would not have guessed that if you watched tonight’s game. He moves the puck with confidence and his outlet pass might be one of the best on this Crusader’s blueline. He made one blunder in the third period but aside from that, he was tremendous and I expect that we’ll see plenty of beautiful stretch passes from #2 this season.
The other defenseman who really stood out was Kevin Minnoch. Minnoch played what I thought was the best game of his AJHL career tonight. He made some beautiful moves with the puck on his stick and was rarely ever caught out of position. At points in the game where the Crusaders needed a big offensive play or something to spark them, it felt like Minnoch was doing that. Whether it was an end-to-end rush or a quick move at the blue line to open up a shooting lane, I thought he was excellent tonight.
On the other side of things, Colson Gengenbach was very noticeable. Outside of his goal, I thought he played very well tonight. Also, even though he gave up more goals than he probably would have liked to, I really liked what I saw from Eric Ward in the Drayton Valley net.
The hunt for win number one will continue next weekend as the Crusaders head to Whitecourt on Friday night to kick off a home and home series against the Wolverines, who have gotten off to a strong start to the season. Keep it locked on BTI for Cru Wraps of both games and don’t forget to subscribe to ‘Inside The Cru’ on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts!