AJHL Finals Preview: Brooks Bandits VS Spruce Grove Saints

Eight months ago, 16 teams began their journey to the Inter Pipeline Cup Finals. After 60 regular season games and three rounds of gruelling playoff hockey, 14 teams are now sat at home, with the Brooks Bandits and Spruce Grove Saints the final two teams left to battle it out for the ultimate prize.

The Bandits and the Saints are the only two teams to win an AJHL Championship since 2010, as these two dynasties look to renew their rivalry this upcoming round, There is plenty of history between the two, they have met three times in the postseason in the past six years which each of the matchups coming in the championship round. Brooks has the advantage with two wins out of three with their most recent meeting coming back in 2016 when the Bandits defeated the Saints in five games.

The Road to the Finals

Spruce Grove began their playoff journey with a first-round matchup against the Drayton Valley Thunder. It was goaltending that proved to be the key in that round with both Matthew Davis (University of Denver) and Luke Lush (Sacred Heart University) each picking up a shutout in the series. Cody Babichuk (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) moved the Saints onto the second round with the series-winning goal with 9.3 seconds left in game four. Spruce Grove would go onto to face the Bonnyville Pontiacs in round two with home ice falling in favour of the Pontiacs.

Games one and two couldn’t have gone much better for the Saints winning both games at the RJ Lalonde Arena. Spruce Grove blew up for five goals on the opening night of the series with 12 players getting their name on the boxscore while Davis made 23 saves between the pipes. The next night, the Saints fought back from 3-0 down to win 4-3 in double overtime thanks to a wrap attempt from Jordan Biro (University of Denver) which was deflected in off Pontiacs forward Marc-Antonine Benoit. Spruce Grove then finished off the job on home ice with two very convincing victories where they limited Bonnyville to only one goal and 32 shots combined. They’d win game three 4-1 and then shutout Bonnyville in game four 1-0. With the victory, the Saints have to wait to find out their opponent for a couple of days which eventually turned into their crosstown rivals the Sherwood Park Crusaders.

The Crusaders proved to be a much tougher test for the Saints who found themselves down 2-0 in the series as they headed back to the Grant Fuhr Arena for games three and four. Reid Irwin (University of Denver) got the game winner in game one which was an extremely close contest. Then in game two, Matt Berlin was outstanding between the pipes for Sherwood Park and was a wall in goal denying the Saints 41 times as the Crusaders went onto win in overtime with Arjun Atwal getting the OT winner. The rest of the series was much different, however, as the Saints took over, winning four games in a row, to move onto the championship round. They suffocated the Crusaders offence and didn’t allow them to gain any momentum as they would merely dominate to move on. The return of Ryan Peckford up front was huge, and TJ Lloyd (Bowling Green State) on the backend were two difference makers. Lloyd was ejected from the game in the third game for a check from behind, and the game was completely different in favour of the Crusaders. Despite that, the Saints would move onto the championship round for the second year in a row.

Unlike the Saints, the Brooks Bandits got a shorter route to the Interpipeline Cup after earning a bye for the first round of the postseason following a spectacular regular season which saw them smash multiple AJHL records including the most wins in a regular season with 57. In round two, the Bandits went up against the Canmore Eagles. The Eagles were the lowest seeded team left in the playoffs (sixth) after upsetting the Drumheller Dragons in five games with four of them going to overtime. However, their seeding didn’t define them, and they gave the Bandits a run for their money. On home ice, Brooks dealt with Canmore with ease beating them 8-2 and 8-1 to jump out to a 2-0 series lead. Simon Boyko (University of Vermont) was outstanding in the opening two games with six points across the two games. Game three was a much different story with the Bandits being forced to the extra frame where they’d end up losing after Quinton Ong (Yale University) netted the winner. Brooks fired 60 shots onto Thomas Davis but were unable to get a winning goal by him. The following night was similar to game three with it heading to overtime once again. However, the outcome was in Brooks favour that night when Arnaud Vachon (Colgate University) completed his hat-trick with an overtime winner to end the game. Brooks then finished the series win with a convincing 4-0 victory in game five back on home ice.

Waiting for them in the South Division final were the Okotoks Oilers for the third year in a row. The goals were being scored like they were going out of fashion in games one and two at the CRA with 21 goals scored combined. The Bandits won game one 7-5, but then in game two Brooks lost on home ice for the first time since the 2018 Divisional Finals against the same opponent. A four-goal third period sealed the victory for the Oilers as they moved the series back to the Pason Centennial Arena for games three and four. The Bandits were missing their captain Nathan Plessis (Brown University) for the next two games after he was suspended for a hit to the head which happened in game two. That didn’t seem to affect them too much offensively though, however, as they went on to blow six by Brady Parker in the Oilers goal. They’d then win game four in overtime when Simon Gravel (Canisius College) netted to give them a 6-5 victory and move them one win away from the Interpipeline Cup Final. The Oilers fought to get back in the series with a 3-2 come from behind victory in game five. That didn’t matter much though as the Bandits clinched the series with a 3-0 win back in Okotoks with Pierce Charleson leading the charge with a 23 save shutout.

The Bandits are now in the AJHL finals for the sixth time in eight years.

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