When the playoff puck drops Friday night in Fort McMurray, the St. Albert Steel will be stoked to beat the heavily-favoured Oil Barons.
“We’re ready to go up to Fort Mac,” captain Mike Giese declared Monday afternoon, after the Steel lost their fifth game in a row and seventh in eight games. “It’s playoff hockey. It’s a completely different season. We’re in and that’s all we’re worried about right now.”
The seventh-place Steel (26-30-3) posted a respectable 1-1-1 record in Fort McMurray, while finishing 2-3-1 overall against the second-place Oil Barons (43-16-1).
“They’re a team we’ve had pretty good success against this year,” Giese said. “Obviously we’re going to have to bring our A game when we go up to Fort Mac. They’ve got a pretty skilled team so what we want to do is play a physical game against them and push them around in their own building a bit.
“We also have the firepower to score some goals so I really like our chances.”
Game two in the best-of-five north division series goes Saturday in Fort McMurray. Next week games three and four are scheduled for Performance Arena on Monday and Tuesday at 7 p.m. Game five is Thursday in Fort McMurray.
In last year’s opening round the Oil Barons swept the Steel in three straight.
This is the fourth straight year the Steel will start the playoffs on the road.
If the Steel upset the Oil Barons for their first playoff series victory in franchise history, they will face-off against the reigning Alberta Junior Hockey League champion Spruce Grove Saints (48-8-4) in the best-of-seven north semifinals.
The Steel have struggled in recent weeks, going 1-8-1 in their last 10 games after losing 3-2 to the fifth-place Lloydminster Bobcats (32-24-4) in the last home game before the playoffs. Monday’s attendance was 425.
“No, I don’t think were worried about it,” Giese said of the team’s losing skid. “We know in our room we’ve got what it takes to win in the playoffs.”
The Steel closed out the regular season Tuesday in Calgary against the south-division Mustangs (27-3-1-1), but the score was unavailable at press time. It was their fourth game in five days. Over the weekend the Steel suffered losses of 6-4 and 4-2 in Grande Prairie against the fourth-place Storm (34-22-4). In both games the Steel notched the tying marker in the third, but the Storm rebounded with the game winner and insurance marker.
“We had two really good efforts on the weekend. It was just tough bounces in the third period,” Giese said. “They capitalized on their chances. We had a couple of them too but we missed.”
In the first game the scrappy centre scored his 10th goal of the season and set up defenceman Jordan Abt’s equalizer to make it 4-4 halfway through the third. Giese also assisted on the first of two goals by Brandon Fagerheim.
The Storm put three pucks past Steel netminder Chris Sharkey during a 3:18-minute span in the first frame, en route to period leads of 3-1 and 4-2. The Storm dominated the shot counter 42-24.
In the second game, the Steel hit the scoreboard first as Spencer Pommells capitalized on the power play. Jordan Kochan knotted it at two apiece at 6:10 in the third. Giese and defenceman Thomas Ward-Cardinal picked up assists.
The Steel were outshot 50-30. Rhys Hadfield (26-24-3, 3.69 GAA) was tagged with the loss.
In the meaningless affair against the Bobcats, Abt and Derek Bacon converted power play chances. The Steel opened the scoring in the first on Abt’s fifth goal, with Giese screening the goalie in the high slot. After two periods it was 2-1 Bobcats. The Steel tied it at 2-2 in the third on Bacon’s 27th of the season. The Bobcats potted the winner 2:08 minutes later.
Sharkey (0-6, 5.07 GAA) faced 23 shots in one of the few games this season the Steel outshot the opposition, this time by a margin of one.
“Lloyd is a tough team to play against. Defensively they’re pretty strong,” Giese said.
The Steel were missing Ward-Cardinal (ankle), their highest-scoring defenceman with 12 goals and 46 points, and the steady Dane Olsen (flu) on the blue line.
Assistant coach Shawn Martin was also suspended for the contest after being assessed a game misconduct at the end of the second game in Grande Prairie.
During Monday’s pre-game ceremonies, graduating juniors Giese, Fagerheim, Pommells and Shawn Proulx were acknowledged by the Steel.
“Obviously it’s a pretty emotional time,” Giese said. “It’s always in the back of your mind that this is kind of the end of my junior career but I can’t really worry about it too much. We’ve got bigger fish to fry right now going into playoffs.”
Giese, who will celebrate his 21st birthday Saturday in Fort McMurray, broke into the AJHL during the Steel’s inaugural 2007/08 season in St. Albert after playing midget AAA with the KC Pats. His 25 points in 58 games is a season high. His career totals include 26 goals and 65 points.
The all-time Steel leader in games played with 213 also ranks third in career penalty minutes with 415.
“I’ve been here for four years and I’ve had a great time with this team and all the guys that I’ve met. I’ve got a ton of great memories,” said the 2009/10 recipient of the Steel’s unsung hero award. “St. Albert is a great place to play. It’s been the four best years of my hockey career for sure. I’ve had an absolute blast.”