Some are calling it the “Suburb Series” or the “Battle of Highway 16”. I don’t care what you choose to dub it; I’m just looking forward to looking back on the upcoming matchup between the Sherwood Park Crusaders and Spruce Grove Saints and calling it the “the best damn playoff series I’ve ever covered”.
There are plenty of reasons to think this will be a fantastic series. The Crusaders were the top team in the North Division throughout the regular season, and on the surface, that should make them the favourite but, the Saints are the defending AJHL Champions, and they won’t go down easy.
To get a better sense of how these two teams will line up, and to better illustrate how tight this series should be, here are a couple of key points:
These two teams went at it six times this season, and while the Crusaders won four of those six matchups, the Saints actually outscored them by two goals throughout their season series.
Their first game this season was back on October 19th when the Cru got a pair of third-period goals from Garrett Clegg which propelled them to a 4-3 comeback victory. They would play the next night, and the Saints would get a 2-0 win with rookie goalie Matt Davis getting a 31 save shutout. Both goalies were named the player of the game for their teams, something that I think we will see a few times in the upcoming playoff series.
They met just once in November in a game that saw the Crusaders grab a 3-2 shootout victory.
They finished their season series with three games in December and their first game of the month was arguably one of the most entertaining regular season games we saw in 2018. With the Crusaders leading 4-1 heading into the third period, the Saints fired home three straight goals in 2:02 to erase the deficit. The Crusaders fought back and scored two more to regain a lead. The Saints made a great final push but lost the game 6-5. These two teams also combined for 57 penalty minutes (17 of which went to Saints forward Dylan Bourlai who racked up 169 PIM’s during the regular season) which reminded everyone that their rivalry is one of the most spirited in the AJHL.
On December 19th, Sherwood Park beat the Saints by a score of 4-1 before losing the season series finale on December 30th by a score of 9-3. That final game left a bit of a damper on a season series that the Crusaders otherwise handled pretty well.
It’s also worth noting that since that game, the Crusaders have added a pair of studs in centre Zach Kaiser and defenseman Reid Irwin. Those two have been highly impactful thus far in the postseason.
While the season series appeared to have favoured the Crusaders based off their record, if you dig a little deeper you’ll see that these two teams played a handful of fantastic hockey games.
THE REGULAR SEASON
I’m not going to recap the entire regular season, so here are some quick notes comparing the two sides:
- The Crusaders record of 44-14-2 was the best record in the AJHL’s North Division. The Saints finished third in the division with a record of 40-17-3.
- The Cru was the highest scoring team in the North with 254 goals scored while the Saints were fourth with 204 goals for. The Saints bread and butter was their goaltending/defence. They only allowed 141 goals (1st in the North) while the Cru allowed 159 (3rd in the North).
- Special teams are huge in the playoffs. During the regular season, the Crusader’s powerplay was second in the AJHL at 27% while the Saints were 10th at 17%.In the playoffs, the Saints powerplay is 20%. On the penalty kill, the Cru was 3rd at 85% while the Saints were 6th at 84%.
BETWEEN THE PIPES
Goaltending will be one of the more fascinating parts of this series. During the regular season, Crusaders 20-year-old Matt Berlin started 38 games. He won 28 of them with a 0.917 save percentage and a 2.57 GAA. His experience in the WHL will also help him as well. Simple as that. In any playoff series, I think having more junior experience is a benefit especially when the series will have plenty of peaks and valleys as I expect this one will.
The Saints will be going with rookie sensation Matt Davis, who I think was robbed of the Goalie of The Year Award in the AJHL. In 25 games this season, he posted a 0914 SV% and a 2.03 GAA. Statistically, he was as good as you can get. He’s only 17-years-old, but you can’t discount his natural ability.
In their head-to-head matchups, Davis actually has a slight edge. In four starts vs the Crusaders, Davis has allowed nine goals and has posted a 0.922 SV%/ Berlin has been solid, but in six starts he’s allowed 19 goals and has an SV% of 0.892.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
The Cru won the division, so they received a first-round bye. They just came off a series win over the Fort McMurray, who played them very tough forcing six games. That might be good for the Cru as I was a little worried they wouldn’t be able to jump right back to their high level of play after their bye week. Those doubts were erased, and I do not doubt that the Crusaders are playing some of their best hockey of the year.
The same can be said about the Saints. After beating Drayton Valley Thunder in four games, the team swept away the Bonnyville Pontiacs in round two. That gave them some time off, which after seven playoff games over two weeks, isn’t a bad thing.
Offensively, the Saints have been led by a pair of 20-years-old forwards. Logan Ganie and Parker Saretsky have combined for 19 points through 16 playoff games. The team has five other players who have produced four points in eight playoff games.
The Crusaders have gotten some offence from an unexpected source as defenseman Tyler Jette is currently sitting as their leading scorer with seven points in six games. Zach Kaiser has been doing some heavy lifting as well with three goals in four games. The usual suspects, Carter Savoie, Arjun Atwal, Garrett Clegg, and Mike Benning, will no doubt factor into this upcoming series as well.
The best defensive team in the North will go up against the divisions most dynamic offence. Combine that with the fact that they have two of the league’s best goaltenders and you have the makings of a great playoff series.
The rivalry will be renewed this Friday when the puck drops at the Sherwood Park Arena.