With the playoffs only two weeks away, the St. Albert Steel are anxious to boost their win total in the Albert Junior Hockey League.
"We've got to start getting on a roll here," said goalie Chad Ketting, who was tested 30 times in Wednesday's 5-2 win over the Calgary Royals as the sixth-place Steel improved to 22-26-24. "We want to win as many games as we can in this last homestretch."
After Friday's tilt against the Sherwood Park Crusaders (score unavailable at press time), the Steel conclude the regular season against the AJHL champion Grande Prairie Storm at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Performance Arena, followed by road games against the Fort McMurray Oil Barons at 2 p.m. Monday and the Crusaders at 7 p.m. Wednesday before hosting the Oil Barons twice next weekend.
When the AJHL playoffs get under way Feb. 25, the Steel will face-off against the third-place Oil Barons (33-18-1-2) or the fourth-place Crusaders (29-16-2-7) in the best-of-five north division series.
"We want to go out there and hit them and score goals and just prove that the first round is going to be tough for any of those teams against us," Ketting said.
The Steel's second win in five games and their fourth in 10 kept the team within striking distance of the fifth-place Bonnyville Pontiacs (26-27-2-1), losers of eight of their last 10 games. Going into Friday's home tilt with the Crusaders, the Steel trailed the slumping Pontiacs by five points with two games in hand.
"It was a good game in Calgary. The team played really well and that's what we needed going into the playoffs," Ketting said. "We came out hard in the first period and got up by a few and went from there."
Game star Reed Linaker recorded his first hat trick of the season. In 52 games the 18-year-old centre has 35 goals and 74 points.
Andrew Hamilton's third goal of the season, an unassisted effort before the five-minute mark, opened the scoring.
Late in the first on the power play, Bryce Williamson sniped his 99th goal with the Steel and the 107th of his AJHL career. His three-point performance left the 20-year-old right winger with 94 points, on 38 goals and 56 assists in 54 games, for second place in the AJHL scoring race.
Alex Perkins also added two assists for 33 points in 40 games.
Ketting, 19, kept the Royals off the scoreboard until the third, when the home team outshot the Steel 18-8 while connecting at even strength at 2:27 to cut the deficit to 3-1 and then rounded out the scoring at 13:57 on the power play.
"I felt really good in net. The boys made it really easy for me. I didn't have to make too many hard saves. Most of my saves were made with my chest," Ketting said. "Games like that are good just to get your confidence up."
Since joining the Steel in the new year, the former Western Hockey League prospect with the Swift Current Broncos and Kelowna Rockets has filled a massive hole between the pipes for the AJHL's third-worst defence team when starter Mark Kotylak, a 20-year-old St. Albert product, surprisingly quit the team before Christmas.
"It was tough sitting on the bench in the WHL. It's a great league but it's good to come down here and get lots of games in," said Ketting, who also has junior A ties with the Powell River Kings. "Right now I'm feeling good in there and I have to keep it going. The guys are making it easy for me too. They have my back and I have their back. It's like one big family out there."
In 13 AJHL games the resident of Sechelt, B.C. is 6-5-2 with a 4.03 GAA and .882 save percentage. Wednesday's start was his sixth in a row while going 2-3-1 during that span.
"Anytime you get the chance to play as many games as you can it's awesome. You get on a roll and I feel that's what I'm in right now."
Ketting 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 currently using affiliate goalies as Ketting's backup.
"There is a bit more pressure going into the playoffs when you're the guy but I'm just going to approach it like any other game so it's not too big of a deal."
Another bright light for the Steel lately is left-winger Justin Morello. The 17-year-old was acquired at the Jan. 10 trade deadline from the Drumheller Dragons for the Steel's highest-scoring defenceman, Nick Scott, 19.
"That was actually kind of flattering, getting traded for one of the top D-men here," said Morello, a Grade 12 student at Spruce Grove Composite High School.
"I'm really happy with the trade so far. I went right close to home so that was good."
The assist on Williamson's goal in Calgary was his sixth helper in nine games with the Steel.
"I'm getting the odd point here and there but I haven't been able to find the net yet," said Morello, a five-foot-eight and 170-pound skater. "I'm not a very big guy so I like to use my speed. I guess you could say I'm more of a playmaker."
After playing bantam AAA for the Spruce Grove PAC Timberwolves, the 2007 provincial champions and western Canadian finalists, Morello moved on to the midget 15 league where he was discovered by the Dragons.
"They had a northern scout up in the Edmonton area watching us and he asked me to come down to their spring camp. They liked me so I went back to the main camp and that's how I ended up there."
As a rookie with the Dragons he scored eight goals and added 13 assists in 43 games.
"It was a really good learning experience. A lot of the older guys on that team really showed me the ways of the junior A."
Prior to the trade Morello was having a banner season with the Dragons while notching 13 goals and 17 assists in 33 games.
"We were struggling a little bit as a team but individually I was doing all right," he said. "Hopefully I can help out here more offensively as we go into the playoffs."