The hockey season officially came to a close Tuesday night after the St. Albert Merchants dropped four of five games to the Sherwood Park Crusaders in the Capital Junior Hockey League playoffs. And while the sting of being edged out by their longtime rival will likely take a while to wear off, the season was full of success, both at the team and individual levels.
Having won the league’s West Division with a record of 31-7 — and a staggering 247 goals with only 94 goals against — the Merchants were given a bye in the qualifying round of playoffs.
In their first postseason series, the group swept the Stony Plain Flyers three games to none.
In the semi-finals, the Merchants went up against the league’s East Division runner-up Beaumont Chiefs, a squad that finished the season with 24 wins against 14 losses.
“In the first two games of the Beaumont series, we didn’t stick to our game plan, and Beaumont made us pay for that,” said head coach Niall O’Donoghue. “After the loss in game two the players had a closed door meeting right after the game. Whatever they said to each other in that room worked.”
Indeed, after dropping the opening pair of games to the Chiefs, the Merchants bounced back with consecutive overtime wins before clinching the series with a 5-2 victory in the fifth matchup.
“The last three games our team came out and just wouldn’t be denied,” O’Donoghue went on. “They showed an incredible amount of grit and determination in winning that series.”
“Once we had our backs against the wall, we knew that it would be a hard mountain to climb, but very achievable against a team like Beaumont,” said assistant captain Dylan McFatridge. “We showed how resilient we are as a group, and that we understand playoff hockey surrounds you with adversity.”
It was this unyielding attitude that helped carry the team through to the last round of the playoffs. O'Donoghue's praise of the players' resilience and McFatridge's acknowledgment of the team's ability to face adversity head-on reveal the mental strength that allowed the team to be one of the best in the province.
In the finals, the Merch would face off against the league’s East Division champions — the same Sherwood Park team that won the league title in 2022.
“Sherwood Park was the most polished team we had seen during our run with lots of skill upfront,” said Dylan McFatridge, who finished the season as the team’s leading scorer. “They ran tight systems like we did, which made it a very fast-paced series.”
“They had a good combination of hard work and skill,” said Carter MacDonald, an ‘02 forward with six goals and three assists in the playoffs.
Of the five games played in the final series, three required more than 60 minutes of play to be decided.
“Each game was close,” MacDonald added. “Our group was always determined on the task at hand.”