The next round for St. Albert’s championship contenders is the final four in the bantam AAA provincial playoffs.
The north regional series against the Fort Saskatchewan Rangers or Grande Peace Storm starts next week at Akinsdale Arena for the top team in the Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League.
“It will be a very energetic series whoever we play. Both teams play with emotion. They skate well and hit hard,” said Lee Zalasky, head coach of the Gregg Distributors Sabres, 31-1-4 (214 GF/77 GA) in the regular season. “We expect (the winner) will be ready to go and give us a pretty hard challenge.”
Dates and times for the best-of-five clash will be confirmed after the Rangers (27-7-2) and Storm (16-14-6) complete their best-of-three Charger north division final this weekend in Fort Saskatchewan.
The Sabres have time to refocus and reenergize after sweeping MLAC Scott Pump in the Nitro north division final.
“We’ll take the weekend here and mentally and physically restore ourselves and whoever comes out of it we’ll kind of adjust accordingly,” Zalasky said. “They do have a little bit different styles but at the end of the day they’re both tough opponents.”
The fourth win in five playoff games for the Sabres was 5-1 against MLAC (13-16-7) Wednesday at Clareview Arena.
Ethan Edwards, a sparkplug on the blueline, was the first star with a power-play goal and three assists.
Mathieu Gautier, Austin Spiridakis, Zack Ostapchuk and Ethan Leyer also scored as the Sabres directed 43 shots on net.
Drew Kuzma had two helpers and Ethan Barwick (3-1, 1.93 GAA) also picked up two assists while stopping 16 shots.
The series opener was a tight 2-1 affair Monday in St. Albert after the Sabres went the distance against the Sherwood Park Flyers in the best-of-three Nitro semifinal and the deciding game was Saturday’s lopsided 7-1 decision on home ice.
“The first series against Sherwood Park it was more of a rivalry so it was pretty emotional for the players and it took a lot out of them and then it was a quick turnaround to jump right into the next series,” Zalasky said. “We had to try to get that emotional level back up to that intensity high again because playing a rival compared to sometimes a city team is a little bit different.
“They were two different teams with their styles of play but both very challenging in their own ways.”
The Sabres came through in the clutch against the Flyers after dropping a 4-3 overtime decision in game two in Sherwood Park and against MLAC survived a scare in the first game as all the scoring took place in the opening 20 minutes.
“We’ve been pretty fortunate to generate a lot of offence this year. The bounces went our way and we’ve worked hard to put pucks into the net but we scored only a couple of goals against MLAC in game one of the series and against Sherwood Park we lost there and only generated a few goals,” Zalasky said.
The Sabres are averaging 4.4 goals per game in the playoffs, compared to 5.9 in league play.
Leyer is the top goal scorer with four after racking 37 in 36 games and Spiridakis and Ryley Morgan share the team lead in playoff points with eight apiece.
“In the playoffs sometimes the bounces don’t go your way, the way they were in the regular season. Teams are tightening up around their net so some of those goals scored during the regular season are starting to kind of go to the wayside and you might have to look for different ways to generate that offence so we need to continue to put shots on the net and look for rebounds and have people at the net and when a few start going in then some of your, I guess more skilled tic-tac-toe plays start opening up,” Zalasky said.
The Sabres are now six wins away from the first St. Albert bantam AAA provincial championship since 1999.
“We want to keep doing things that will make us successful and that’s going about our business and playing the game the right way,” Zalasky said. “We’ll make adjustments as we go to try and help our team but essentially we still need to do things that have led us up to this point for.”
The Sabres are trending in the right direction as the team to beat but the bull’s-eye on their backs grows larger as the playoffs progress.
“The biggest thing for a lot of teams is they stop looking at their records and say we’re in the playoffs now and we just need to get these many wins and we move on where in the league you’re playing a team and you’re battling for positions in the standings and throughout the year we were so far ahead teams weren’t really jostling with us but every game now we’re seeing the team’s best efforts because they want to put another loss in our loss column,” Zalasky said.
The best-of-five final against the south regional winner is expected to start March 11 and the Alberta champion advances to westerns, March 30 to April 2 in Warman and Martensville, Sask. The five-team tournament is hosted by the Saskatchewan Valley Vipers.