The St. Albert Merchants can force the Beverley Warriors to tap out tonight after grabbing a chokehold on their playoff series.
The Warriors are fighting to stay alive in the best-of-five quarter-final after decisive victories of 7-3 and 4-0 by the Money Men last weekend.
The Merchants can deliver the final blow in game three, starting at 8 p.m. at Akinsdale Arena.
“It’s important to close it up as soon as we can,” said Kurtis Watts, captain of the No. 1 playoff seed in the Capital Junior B Hockey League.
Last year the Merchants let a two-game lead slip away against the Warriors before pulling victory out of the jaws of defeat in the deciding showdown in dramatic finish by scoring the tying goal in the last minute of play and the sudden-death winner in the third overtime game of the quarter-final.
“If you give a team hope it’s a pretty dangerous tool and that definitely happened last year,” Watts said.
If needed, game four is 8 p.m. Friday at Londonderry Arena and game five is 8 p.m. Sunday at Akinsdale.
The winner advances to the best-of-seven semifinals against an east division team.
“If we can wrap it up as quick as we can we can get some more rest going into the next seven game series, which can help us be better and win in the playoffs,” Watts said.
The Merchants needed a bit more than a period in Friday’s series opener in St. Albert to regain its dominating 34-3-1 regular-season form after a 13-day layoff that included a best-of-three first round bye.
“We had a bad start just because of the bye obviously but we got our bearings later on in that second period,” Watts said.
The Warriors opened the scoring in the first frame with the man advantage and 1:55 into the second made it 2-0 before the Merchants deposited five goals in a 13:54 span to gain the upper hand. Josh Jewell, Taylor Wiebe, Blair Macuch, Ryan Harrison (shorthanded) and Stefan Meunier (power play) lit the lamp before the Warriors responded with a third goal with six seconds to go.
“After the first period we basically said, ‘Boys, we’re the top ranked team going in here and we’ve got to start playing like it. There are no excuses going into the second. We got our first period out of the way so let’s just start playing our game,’” Watts said. “It kind of went from there and we kept the momentum going and kept on them for the second game and it worked out for us.”
In the third Wiebe potted his second of the night and Mitch McNamara (power play) closed it out with 11:08 remaining.
Macuch and Watts finished the game with three assists apiece and Meunier had two helpers.
Outshot 17-12 in the first, the Merchants responded with 19 shots in the second for 46 overall. The Warriors tested all-star netminder Justin Pawlenchuk 34 times.
Pawlenchuk, the team’s MVP last year, stopped 34 shots Sunday while posting his third shutout of the season.
After a scoreless opening period Jewell and Meunier (power play) connected in the second before Casey Reid (power play) and A.J. Yariwon sealed the deal. Jewell assisted on both goals in the third.
“Defensively we were really solid. We didn’t really give them much for opportunities other than the power play,” Watts said. “Five on five and on our power play we kind of took it to them.”
In the regular season the Merchants recorded wins of 4-2, 5-0, 7-1 and 6-4 against the Warriors (19-19), ranked fourth in the west with 31 fewer points than the division leaders.
“Our depth is huge. We’ve got four real solid lines. We’ve got two guys that are healthy scratches every game that are equally contributing to the team whether they’re playing or not. Our goaltending obviously is really good and that definitely helps us,” said Watts.
The 22-year-old defenceman made a triumphant return to the line-up last weekend with four assists after missing 17 games with a broken right collerbone suffered in the 10-0 blowout of the Stony Plain Flyers on Nov. 17 in St. Albert.
“I felt really good out there. I was a little rusty maybe in the sense of the hockey department after being off that long but I was fired up to play.”
The bachelor of commerce student at MacEwan University had mixed emotions watching the Merchants rip it up on the ice.
“It was really tough mentally but the boys were really supportive of me,” said Watts, who joins Pawlenchuk, Harrison and Meunier as the team’s overage players. “I was just proud of the guys and how they did this season. I was just glad how they put us in a good position in playoffs and give me a good opportunity to play some more games later on.”
ICE CHIPS: Harrison, a 21-year-old centre, was one of four CJHL players to receive $1,500 academic scholarships from the Friends of Alberta Junior Hockey League Society. The Merchants’ assistant captain is an education student at the University Alberta.