It's down to two teams as to which one the St. Albert Steel will go up against in the opening playoff round in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
With three games remaining the Steel will start their best-of-five series next weekend on the road against the Fort McMurray Oil Barons or Sherwood Park Crusaders.
"Realistically it doesn't matter to us. We're going to focus on what we can control and that way come playoff time we'll be ready to play our best hockey," said assistant captain Alex Perkins.
The Steel visit the Crusaders tonight at 7 p.m. before closing out the regular season against the Oil Barons at home Friday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
"We realize we're going to play one of those two teams in the playoffs so all we can really try and do is send a message and let them know it's not going to be an easy series," Perkins said. "We feel that we're a team that can do some damage this year. We've got some guns up front, our D is really coming around and our goaltending is better than it's ever been."
In the ultra-competitive north standings, the third-place Oil Barons are four points ahead of the Crusaders with three games left to play for both teams. The Steel are sixth overall, two points back of the fifth-place Bonnyville Pontiacs with a game in hand.
"We would like to get up another spot ahead of Bonnyville, that way we would hopefully play Sherwood Park. The travel would be a little bit lighter but if it ends up being Fort McMurray, we're excited for that too. Everybody loves a long road trip in the playoffs," said centre Spencer Pommells.
Winless vs. Barons
The Steel are 0-4 against the Oil Barons this season after Monday's 4-1 defeat in Fort McMurray.
"We haven't had much success against Fort McMurray but that's not saying we can't. We know they're very young and they're soft so if we impose our will on them a little bit with a grittier style of playoff hockey, you don't know how they're going to react," said Perkins, who opened the scoring Monday with his 14th goal and 36th point of the season.
In the four losses, including three in Fort McMurray, the Steel were outscored 25-6.
"We can't run and gun with them because they're a team that plays so good with their systems and their D core is strong and their goaltending is strong too," Pommells said. "We have to make sure we're playing our systems and just keep it simple."
Three of those losses were in the new year after the Oil Barons embarrassed the Steel 9-0 Dec. 22 at Performance Arena.
"After Christmas we feel that we've made some serious steps in the right direction as far as cleaning up our own end and being more of a sound defensive hockey team," Perkins said.
Crusaders better fit
As for the Crusaders, the Steel are 2-2-0-1 against their AJHL rivals after Friday's 3-2 overtime loss in St. Albert. It was a game the Steel should have won in regulation time but gassed a 2-0 first period lead. They had chances galore in the third but couldn't solve the netminding of Matt Esposito.
"We threw 41 shots on net [including a 17-6 margin in the third] and dominated them," said Pommells, the Steel's player of the game with one goal and one assist.
The Steel rebounded Sunday with an impressive 4-2 victory over the AJHL champion Grande Prairie Storm.
"We felt we beat ourselves a little bit against Sherwood Park so to come back and get a win against a good team like Grande Prairie is huge for our team definitely," Perkins said.
Weathered the Storm
The Storm are second in the north as the seventh highest ranked junior A team in Canada.
"We can take a lot of positives from beating them. It's not an accident, it's something we've been working hard at and it's starting to pay off," Pommells said. "We're not a sixth place team and it showed against these guys. They underestimated us in the first period and we took advantage of it."
The Storm tried unsuccessfully to run the Steel out of the rink and the lack of discipline resulted in a pair of power-play goals by Perkins in the first and a man-advantage marker by Pommells in the second to make it 3-0. The parade of penalties featured 68 minutes for the Storm and only 37 minutes for the Steel, who were awarded 11 power play opportunities in the entertaining affair. The coaches also got into it as Greg Parks of the Steel and Mike Vandekamp of the Storm traded verbal jabs in the hallway behind the benches during the first period intermission.
"We came out and got a couple of goals early and stuck to our game plan and it worked out for us," Perkins said. "They've got a bunch of guys who are really intense and sometimes their emotions can get the better of them so our game plan was to stay cool and let them be stupid and try and capitalize on the power play."
Perkins, 20, looked like Steel sniper Bryce Williamson on his first goal against Storm netminder Jared Andersen, a riveting breakaway set up by defenceman Ryan Wilkinson that was finished off in a blaze of glory by the St. Albert minor hockey product.
"It was a really nice stretch pass from Ryan. I was in alone and I just beat him low," Perkins said.
Less than six minutes later, Perkins' pass across the crease to Pommells wound up in the Storm net.
"I got the puck low and I tried to feed it across and it hit a skate and it just went through his legs," said the Steel's unsung left-winger who rides shotgun on the top line with Williamson and Reed Linaker. "It was a little bit lucky but you get those bounces sometimes."
The 14th goal and 35th point by Pommells put the Steel up by three but the Storm closed out the middle period with a goal against Chad Ketting.
An empty net goal by Williamson with four seconds to play sealed the deal. Several big-time saves by Ketting kept the Steel in front as the Storm outshot the home team 16-5 in the third and 39-21 overall.
"When we came in after the second we knew we don't have to score any more goals, we just had to play good defensively and not let them go Globetrotters on us," said Pommells, 19.