The St. Albert Merchants are playing their finest hockey at the right time with the playoffs only a slap shot away.
The Money Men, winners of eight of their last 10 games, have two home contests remaining before the post-season begins Feb. 12 in the Capital Junior B Hockey League.
“We’re getting into a lot of good playoff habits, keeping it simple and working hard every night,” said captain Dan Rombough. “We’re trying to play complete as a team and play a full sixty minute game.”
If the playoffs started today, the third-place Merchants (22-12-2) would face-off against the sixth-place Stony Plain Flyers (11-20-4) in the best-of-three west division preliminary round.
Last year the Flyers upset the Merchants – repeat winners of the Challenge Cup as the top team in the regular season – in the best-of-five quarterfinals. The Merchants lost all three home games in the series to the host team for the 2015 provincials.
“Playoffs are a totally new season and this year more than recent years there are a number of teams capable of going deep. It will be a huge test for us no matter who we play but we’re confident we can compete with any team on any given night. We’re getting solid goaltending and have a real balanced attack (eight players with 10 or more goals), and equally important, we’re improving in our overall team defence,” said head coach Scott Rodda. “Hopefully our fans come out on Feb. 12 for our playoff opener and be that sixth player that always seems to help. Our fans are definitely the best in the league when it comes to playoff hockey so hopefully this year is no different.”
The Merchants increased their lead over the fourth-place Beverly Warriors (20-12-3) to three points in Sunday’s 2-1 overtime tussle against the east division-leading Wetaskiwin Icemen (23-10-4).
“Wetaskiwin is a good team. They’re at the top of their division and we’re playing well right now so it was a lot like a playoff game. Both teams were playing hard and both teams needed to win as they battle for playoff positions so it was a really good close game,” said Rombough.
His fifth goal and 25th point in 34 games was the winner in the opening minute of the extra period.
“The puck was in the corner, it was a four on four, so I was down there and I managed to pick it up and I took it to the net. I ended up getting alone in front of the net with it and just found the back of the net,” said Rombough of the shot that beat goalie Joey Desrosiers on the far side.
Liam Mowatt’s first goal of the season in his 21st game tied it at one in the first.
Taylor Lotoski’s assist on Rombough’s marker was his 13th point in six games since joining the Merchants after stints with the Spruce Grove Saints and Lloydminster Bobcats in the AJHL and Nipawin Hawks in the SJHL.
Shots were 44-43 for the Merchants and Ty Clelland (17-12, 3.65 GAA) recorded the win, the team’s second in a row after two losses that ended a season-best five-game winning streak.
“We’ve been stressing how important it is to have the playoff character it takes to be successful and all signs are clearly pointing in that direction. The guys are working hard as they ever have in practice and are making the necessary sacrifices both on and off the ice to be successful,” Rodda said. “Despite being a relatively young and new team, led by the veterans and embraced by the rookies, the team appears to be peaking just at the right time. Guys are blocking shots, taking a hit to make a play and buying into the concept of playing for one another more than themselves. This combination will bode well for us if we can continue to execute as well as we have of late.”
A retooled roster is comprised of six returning players, including four from the 2014 Founders Cup finalists and fourth-place team at provincials: Rombough and Jared Kwasney on defence and forwards’ Casey Reid and Thomas Rotundo.
“We had a lot of new guys this year, a lot of rookies and a lot of guys from out of town, so as the season went on we began to mesh together a little bit better,” Rombough said. “We added some pretty good players in the season and they found spots in our lineup and they’ve been able to help us. Now, we’re just trying to play our best before we go into playoffs.
“We’re realizing we need to be more consistent while getting better at playing a full 60 minutes. There were games earlier in the season we should’ve won and we kind of threw them away by not playing a full game so that’s something we’re focusing on, just showing up to every game ready to play.”
Rombough, 21, joins Kwasney, the team’s blueline leader in goals with nine, Reid, a fourth-year Merchant, and Clelland as over-age Merchants in their last junior B campaign.
“I’m just trying to make the most of it. I think we’ve got the team to go all the way. We have as good of a team as we’ve ever had so I’m excited for playoffs to see how far we can go,” said Rombough, a St. Albert Catholic High School grad and third-year University of Alberta kinesiology student.
Friday the Merchants tied their season high for goals in a game in the 11-2 rout of the Riggers (9-25-2) in Leduc.
Lotoski racked up four goals for five as a Merchant during a five-point outing.
Matt Havens’ hat-trick and one assist raised his team-high totals to 27 goals and 56 points in 26 games.
Tyler Mork tallied twice for eight goals and 14 points in 17 games and Reid added three assists for 47 points this season.
Kwasney and Rotundo chipped in with one goal and two assists apiece.
The shot count was 41-20 and Ryan Papirny (5-2, 3.15 GAA) was in net.
The Merchants close out league play Friday against the Flyers and Sunday against the Fort Saskatchewan Hawks (19-14-2) at 8 p.m. at Akinsdale Arena.