For the first time in 261 days, there was regular season hockey at the Sherwood Park Arena. A lot has changed since the Crusaders beat the Whitecourt Wolverines by a score of 2-1 on February 27th. Obviously, we’ve begun living through a global pandemic but for the Crusaders, the team they’re putting on the ice tonight is vastly different than the one that drove them to an incredible 49-9-0 record in 2019/20.
They lost key pieces like Carter Savoie, Arjun Atwal, Michael Benning, and Carter Gylander. The team that Kyle Chase and company put together last season was the most talented in the organization’s history and they won more than any team in the franchise’s history. You simply cannot replace those kinds of players in one offseason.
But enough about that team because tonight is about new beginnings and after starting their season off with a loss last night in Spruce Grove, the Crusaders were looking to grab their first win of the season tonight in their home opener.
The Cru have plenty of fresh faces in their lineup and so do the Spruce Grove Saints who, like their cross-town rivals, lost a lot of high-end talent over the offseason including goaltender Matt Davis, who was a top-three puck-stopper in the AJHL over the last few seasons.
It’s one of the best rivalries in the AJHL and I could not think of a better way to kick off the season than to have these two teams play a home and home set.
Here’s how things went down tonight:
If I’m being honest, the first few minutes of this one felt a little bit slow. I wasn’t expecting much of a feeling out process considering these two teams played just 24 hours earlier but there just wasn’t a lot of pace in the first few minutes of this game.
The first spark came from Dylan Guenther who had the games first good scoring chance and the Crusaders built off that. Every one of their forward lines had at least two good offensive chances in the opening frame.
As the Crusaders got their legs moving a little bit more, the ice opened up and the result was a handful of stretch passes that not only resulted in some of their best scoring chances of the period but their first goal as well.
With just under eight minutes into the period Matt Shatsky fired a pass up the right side of the neutral zone to James Gibson who entered the zone and fired a pass that was put home by a driving Ashton McNelly.
McNelly’s first career AJHL goal gave the Crusaders an early lead.
The Saints would fight back eventually getting their first quality chance off the stick of Graham Gamache who made a slick move past a Crusader’s defenseman but couldn’t beat Jordan Frey, who made 10 stops in the opening frame. His counterpart Ty Palmer was very good as well stopping a handful of ‘A+’ scoring chances.
As the period wore on, the Saints began getting more and more chances and the game continued to open up.
The visitors would eventually even things up on the powerplay when veteran forward and St. Albert product Nick Leyer would let go of a wrist shot from the top of the offensive zone that found the back of the net. After going 0/3 with the man advantage last night, the Saints needed just one chance to score tonight.
The score held for the final 1:58 of the frame and these two teams skated off the ice with the game tied.
The second period wasn’t quite as wide open as the opening frame. There was a lot more dumping and chasing and fewer odd-man rushes compared to the first 20 minutes of the game. The Crusaders got an early chance on the powerplay but despite three chances, almost all generated by Dylan Guenther, they couldn’t find the back of the net.
Back at even strength, stretch passes continued to work for the Cru as Ashton McNelly was sprung but couldn’t convert on the breakaway. The Crusader’s fourth-line centre came within inches of burying his second career goal.
The Saints took a turn with the man-advantage just a few minutes late but apart from one good chance off the rush, Sherwood Park kept them in check and kept the game tied.
The Crusaders would get another chance on the powerplay but for the second time in the period, they came up empty-handed. It looked like this game was going to stay tied heading into the third period but just like they did in the first period, the Saints struck this late. Jordan Frey did the best he could, stopping a flurry of chances in front, but eventually, the Saints found a way and took a 2-1 lead.
The Crusaders came close to tieing things up in the dying minutes’ thanks to a strong shift from the Savoie-Mueller-Guenther line, but they couldn’t beat Palmer. If the Crusaders wanted to get their first win of the season, they would need a third-period comeback.
The Saints came out strong in the final frame and for the first three minutes of play, they really dominated play. It wasn’t long after their run of consistent pressure in the offensive that they found the back of the net once again. With 16:35 remaining in the period, Graham Gamache, who scored the OT winner last night, once again found the back of the net giving the Saints a 3-1 lead.
The Crusaders had a chance to cut the deficit to one shortly after as Zafir Rawji and Tanner Fincaryk had a two-on-one chance but they couldn’t convert it.
That miss would prove costly as shortly after the Saints would score their second powerplay goal of the game. Lucas Ciona scored the goal, his second of the game.
Down 4-1, the Crusaders finally got a break as Saints defenseman Gannon Laroque went to the box for high-sticking and just seconds after the puck dropped on the Crusader’s third powerplay chance of the game, they found the back of the net. Matt Savoie got credit for the goal.
That goal gave the Crusaders life as in the minutes following, they poured on the pressure with three or four looks right in front of the Saints net. They just couldn’t get another bounce.
They picked up their play in the final few minutes, but never found the back of the net.
- It’s a small thing, but I really like the addition of hybrid icing. I feel like it makes players more willing to try to send a long stretch pass and it helps create more offence.
- Jordan Frey was very good in his first game of the regular season. I would expect that they’ll split every weekend series so having both Frey and Cherepak play well will be important.
- It’s a lot of fun to watch Dylan Guenther and Matt Savoie play hockey. They’re both wildly skilled and incredibly creative with the puck on their stick.
- I liked their powerplay tonight. They only got one goal, but even on the chances where they didn’t score, they got good chances.
- Defensive zone turnovers by the Cru were a big part of the reason why the Saints started to gain momentum in the first period.
- There were just a few too many unforced errors throughout the game by the Crusader’s blueliners. Too many passes that really missed the mark or were fumbled before they were released.
- Down by one in their home opener and the Crusaders come out flat in the early stages of the final frame. That was disappointing to see.
- In a normal year, the Sherwood Park Arena would be bumping for a home opener against the Spruce Grove Saints. While it’s great to have hockey back, I really miss sitting in a packed arena. Those were better days.
- The Cru fall to 0-2 on the season. This year will be a bit of an adjustment for everyone. There were still positives to pull from this weekend but regardless, an 0-2 start still stings.
If the Crusaders want to compete for another North Division title this year, they’ll need to routinely get good performances from all four of their forward lines. Scoring will have to be done by committee.
While the goals may have not been there, I thought their bottom-six was excellent tonight. The Magis-Fincaryk-Rawji line had some dominant shifts in the first period and the fourth-line of Wutzke-McNelly-Gibson had some really good shifts as well and had a good physical presence. They jumbled up the lines in the third period, which speaks to have well some depth players were performing.
If they can continue to get standout performances from players in their bottom-six then the goals, and wins, will start to come.
On the other side of things, I really enjoyed watching Graham Gamache play and create offence. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is a candidate for league MVP.
No games during the week for the Crusaders, as will be the norm this season, but they’ll be back in action next weekend against the new and improved Drayton Valley Thunder. The home and home set starts Friday night at the Drayton Valley Omniplex and will conclude on Saturday night at the Sherwood Park Arena.
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