The Crusaders took to the ice in front of their home crowd with a chance to finish off the Fort McMurray Oil Barons and advance to the third round of the AJHL Playoffs. When I spoke to Head Coach Adam Manah earlier this week, he described the first four games of this series as an absolute war and I would have to agree with him. These two teams have clearly been trying to get under each other’s skin all series and even Manah admitted that both sides have probably crossed the line a few times. For a full recap of the first four games of the series, you can listen to my interview with the Crusaders Head Coach HERE.
Every playoff game is obviously massive, so it seems redundant to say that both teams were desperate for a win but tonight the pressure was ramped up more than it was in any other game in the series. Fort McMurray is battling to keep their season alive and while a loss for the Crusaders would not have been the end of the world, it would force them to go back up to Fort Mac for a sixth game which is far from ideal.
The teams wouldn’t need any extra motivation but for the Cru, I can imagine it felt nice to skate out to what I believe is their largest crowd in years. The first five minutes of the game, in front of a near capacity crowd, would be massive.
The first few minutes of the game did end up being vital. The Oil Barons gave the Crusaders close to six uninterrupted minutes of powerplay time to start the period and simply put: the home team blew an opportunity to get their crowd engaged and jump out to an early lead.
In those three powerplays, they had a few good looks but only registered a total of five shots on goal. That’s not good enough. The Cru would get one more powerplay before the end of the period and once again, Fort McMurray would kill it off.
After the MOB killed their first set of penalties, they got a little bit of a boost offensively but couldn’t cash in. Reed Morrison got a great look on an odd-man rush, but he double-clutched the puck and never really got a clean shot off. It just looked like a player who isn’t confident, which is rare to say about Morrison. He led the AJHL in goals during the regular season but hasn’t found the back of the net through nine playoff games.
The game would stay tied for the majority of the period and despite the fact the Cru dominated the shot clock, the Oil Barons would strike first when Kole Gable jumped on a puck in the neutral zone, walked in, and wired one far side on Matt Berlin. For Gable, that was his team-leading sixth goal of the playoffs. For the Barons, it allowed them to escape the opening frame with a 1-0 lead despite the fact they were outshot 16-5.
Early in the period, after Will Zapernick was knocked down in front of the net, Carter Savoie decided to give Oil Barons defenseman Ty Ettinger a solid wack to the back of the legs. I understand that he might have been a little frustrated with the fact Ettinger had jump knocked down Zapernick and I know playoffs can be heated, but that’s something the team needs to avoid. You can’t give out free powerplays after the whistle because one goal in the playoffs can kill you.
The Cru would kill the penalty off and go right back to dominating the hockey game. They poured shots onto MOB starter Chris Curr, but the 5’10 St. Albert product stood tall through a storm of shots and zone time.
The Oil Barons would extend their lead to two on their 15th shot of the game when Reed Morrison would ignite a rush that was eventually finished off by Liam Izyk. It was a goal that could have been a back-breaker, but the home side kept trying to push through. The problem tonight was simply the man between the pipes for the Oil Barons.
The Cru would get their big chance in the final minutes of the frame when the Oil Barons took back-to-back penalties, the second being a double minor for high-sticking, giving the Crusaders over a minute of five-on-three time to end the frame. They would hardly waste any of that time, cycling the puck hard around the outside of the Oil Barons penalty killers before throwing a point shot towards Curr who managed to stop the initial attempt but couldn’t squeeze Zack Kaiser’s rebound. The Crusader’s deadline acquisition brought the crowd to their feet for the first time tonight and cut the teams deficit to one.
The first 40 minutes of this game was fantastic and the third period was far from a letdown. The period started with the Crusaders being gifted yet another five-on-three. They failed to capitalize on that golden opportunity but continued to put pressure on Chris Curr, who was rock solid. He ended up stopping 42 shots in regulation time.
On the other side of the goaltending battle was Matt Berlin. While he wasn’t as busy as his Fort McMurray counterpart, he was just as impactful. He made a ridiculous cross-crease save with 9:58 to go in the third period which kept it a one-goal game. That would prove crucial as with just over four minutes to go with the period another deadline acquisition, Reid Irwin, went coast-to-coast and threw a puck on net that somehow crossed the line. The Sherwood Park Arena erupted, but the game wasn’t over quite yet.
The Oil Barons went right back on the attack and got a glorious chance on an odd-man rush but Matt Berlin once again came to the rescue keeping the game tied. For a brief second, that looked like a potential game-winning save as just seconds later the Cru went right back down the ice on a two-on-one. Carter Savoie opted to shoot but his five-hole attempt was denied by Chris Curr.
Absolute mayhem to end regulation. More would ensue in overtime.
The extra frame started with the Crusaders taking it to the MOB. They were generating chance after chance but once again couldn’t solve Curr. Their best looks came just under three minutes into the period when Garrett Clegg, the AJHL leader in game-winning goals, ripped two straight wrist shots that were both labelled for the low corner. Neither found twine.
Immediately after, Clegg would take a two-minute slashing penalty and gave the Barons a chance to extend the series. They did exactly that. 64 seconds into the powerplay Oil Barons Captain Taner Miller let go of a seemingly harmless wrist shot that eluded Berlin and ended the game. 3-2 Fort Mac is the final.
- This was a fantastic game in front of a rocking franchise-record crowd. Seeing that much support for junior hockey in the Edmonton area was just amazing to see.
- The best team didn’t win tonight. I thought Sherwood Park was the better team. Did they blow some great chances on the powerplay? They did. But did they do a fantastic job of putting the Oil Barons on their heels? Absolutely. They were generating offence all night from every part of their lineup, even the defensemen were jumping up. They need to remember how well they played tonight when they head back up to Fort McMurray.
- Matt Berlin was the reason this game was able to get to OT. Those two saves he made in the third period were the straight-up definition of clutch. He’s been this teams MVP through this playoff round and you cannot convince me otherwise.
- The teams two deadline acquisitions got the goals and that’s always great to see. That deal by Kyle Chase to bring in those two paid off tonight.
- Although their powerplay came through later on in the game, those three missed opportunities to start the game really stung. When a team gives you that many chances early in the game, you need to strike and the Cru couldn’t get much going.
- The stuff after the whistles is understandable, it shows how bad these guys want it and how much emotion is packed into these games, but you can’t take penalties or negate powerplay opportunities. As the playoffs continue, the Cru need to just walk the line a little bit better. It can cost you.
- OT is a mess. One bad bounce kills you (or good bounce depending on how you look at it). Tonight the bounce didn’t go the Crusaders way.
- Sometimes goalies can steal games and there’s really nothing you can do about it. Tonight was one of those nights. The Cru peppered Curr, but it just felt like there was no way he would lose this game.
We’re going back up to Fort McMurray for game five on Sunday night. Puck drop goes at 7:30 pm from the Casman Centre.