The St. Albert Steel were 20 minutes away from upsetting the team to beat in the Alberta Junior Hockey League when the game slipped away from them.
"We showed that we can play with anybody in the league. They're ranked number one in Canada and we held them to a tie for 47 minutes," Steel captain Ryan Edens said after Saturday's 5-2 loss to the Spruce Grove Saints (46-4-1-3) at Performance Arena.
With the game knotted at two apiece the Saints exploded for three goals in a three-minute span against netminder Chad Ketting. The Saints dominated the period shot-wise 18-6 as they pounded St. Albert's defence with an unrelenting forechecking attack.
"They got two breaks where they ended up on two-on-ones. They're a good team and they were able to capitalize," said Edens, a 20-year-old defenceman from Sherwood Park.
The Steel hung tough with the Saints before the roof caved in.
"We did a good job in the first two periods of chipping pucks off the glass and just getting pucks out," Edens said. "We played the simple, smart game that we wanted to. They're obviously a skilled team. They've got some good forwards and they've got some D-men who can score and we just wanted to get pucks out of our zone and go from there."
Bryce Williamson's 37th goal of the season broke the ice at 9:39 but the Saints scored the equalizer less than a minute later. They added a power play goal against a screened Ketting before the period ended.
Taylor Fraser evened the count in the second with a great shot from the faceoff circle that rattled off the iron and in.
Shots overall were 34-24 for the Saints. The Steel were scoreless on four power plays and the Saints capitalized once on four chances.
In the north standings the Saints have 25 more wins and 48 more points than the sixth-place Steel (21-26-2-4).
"There was really no pressure going into the game for us. We went out and just gave it all we had and hoped for the best," Edens said.
The night before the Steel and visiting Lloydminster Bobcats skated to a 3-3 draw. The Steel gave leads away of 2-0 and 3-2 and had a chance to win it in the second overtime period on a penalty shot by Spencer Pommells but he was unsuccessful. The Steel had the edge in shots overall 39-35.
"We put in a good effort against Lloyd," Edens said. "Tonight we were more focused on being more simple and limiting their opportunities just because they have so many skilled forwards. We need to treat every team like that and we didn't treat Lloyd like that."
Goals by Williamson (second Steel shot on the first shift of the game) and Pommells (power play) before the nine-minute mark got the Steel off to a flying start. The Bobcats rallied with scores at 16:47 of the first and 5:29 of the second. Reed Linaker's 32nd goal put the Steel back on top at 10:07 in the second but the Bobcats replied with 2:53 left in the period. A super glove save by Ketting (5-5-2, 4.21 GAA) on Brody Foster early in the third kept the score deadlocked.
Shots were 10 apiece in the third and 4-1 for the Bobcats in overtime. In the second OT period — five minutes of three-on-three — the Steel were awarded a penalty shot after Brett Slobodzian was penalized. Pommells tried to go five-hole against Garrett Sheehan but just missed.
After tonight's game in Calgary against the suspension-riddled Royals (20-25-2-8) the Steel have six games left until the playoffs. They lead the seventh-place Bobcats (16-29-2-6) by eight points and trail the fifth-place Bonnyville Pontiacs (25-26-2-1) by five with a game in hand.
"We're not concentrating on the standings at all. We're just taking it one game at a time. We know that our playoff spot is secure," Edens said
The Steel are 3-5-1-1 in their last 10 games and 5-7-1-1 in 2010.
"Right now we're just trying to get better with every game. We just want to be ready to go full steam ahead when we hit playoffs."
This is the third and final AJHL season for Edens, the Steel's all-time career penalty minute leader with 704 in 167 games. Also graduating from the Steel are defenceman Nolan Smith, right-winger David Carr and assistant captains Alex Perkins and Williamson.
"It's been a great three years here. I've developed great relationships with a lot of guys on this team. It will be sad when it's all over but it will be just a new page to turn," Edens said.
In the fall the heart and soul of the Steel will play NCAA division three hockey with the Fredonia State University Blue Devils in the American Collegiate Hockey Association. He recently committed to the liberal arts college, based in western New York.
"It's a big weight off my mind. It's something I'm not thinking about anymore and I can just focus on here now."
The Blue Devils have been after Edens since the AJHL Showcase weekend last season.
"I'm really looking forward to it. It seems like a really good program," he said. "I went and visited the school this summer and I really liked it, especially the character the school has. The focus is on academics and building character."
Edens expects to play the same role with the Blue Devils as he does with the Steel.
"I've been talking to the coach [Mike Lima] a lot and he's not bringing me in to go coast to coast. He wants me to be playing my game and winning battles and I think I will be able to help out there," said Edens, who has two goals and 30 assists in 167 Steel games.
The Steel are home this weekend for games against the fourth-place Sherwood Park Crusaders (29-16-2-7), a possible first round opponent, at 7 p.m. Friday and the AJHL champion Grande Prairie Storm (36-15-1-2) at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. On Monday the Steel visit the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (33-17-1-2) at 2 p.m. If the playoffs were to start today, the Steel would open the best-of-five series in Fort McMurray. The teams hook up next weekend for two games in St. Albert to wrap up league play.
ICE CHIPS: Williamson's 91 points ranks second in the AJHL scoring race. He is also two goals away from 100 in his Steel career. In four AJHL seasons, including his 2006/07 AJHL debut with the Fort Saskatchewan Traders, the right-winger has 105 goals, 129 assists and 234 points in 217 games.
Ketting, 19, will go the distance in net for the Steel after Chris Sharkey (6-7-1, 4.32 GAA) had his appendix removed recently. Sharkey, 17, is expected back in time for the playoffs. The Steel are using affiliate goalies as Ketting's back up.