Sherwood Park – Wednesday's pivotal confrontation with the Sherwood Park Crusaders ended in disappointment for the St. Albert Steel.
"It was the biggest game of the year for us and we had absolutely no one show up, starting right from our goaltender through to our defence and our forwards," said an upset Greg Parks, the Steel's head coach and general manager, after the 7-6 loss. "We got exactly what we deserved. The score was very flattering. It could've been a lot worse."
The Steel posted period leads of 3-2 after the first and 4-3 after the second before the Crusaders put the game away with three goals before the 11-minute mark in the third. They added an empty netter while shorthanded with 47 seconds to play to make it 7-5.
"We played run and gun with them," said captain Ryan Edens. "We didn't play smart and we didn't play defensively at all."
The third-worst defensive team (250 GA) in the Alberta Junior Hockey League was victimized by Cody Kunyk's three goals. The hat-trick marker and 43rd goal of the season by the nominee for the league's MVP award was scored shorthanded at 5:54 of the third to put the Crusaders up 5-4.
"Since Christmas on we've played really well defensively to keep teams to three or four goals max but tonight this was the same St. Albert Steel of before Christmas," Parks said. "We gave some of the pretty skilled players on their team way too much time and space in our end when our D zone was not good at all. We showed some of their players way, way too much respect instead of getting into their faces. We want to be difficult to play against and we weren't very difficult to play against tonight at all."
The Steel were lucky to escape the middle frame with the lead as the Crusaders scored once during a 23-shot barrage against Chad Ketting (7-7-3, 3.91 GAA). Shots overall were 49-40 by the home team.
Steel left-winger Alex Perkins continued to rack up the points with two goals and two assists. In the last seven games the 20-year-old recorded five goals and added seven assists. He ranks fourth in team scoring with 40 points, on 16 goals and 24 assists in 44 games.
Bryce Williamson notched three assists to take over top spot in the AJHL scoring race with 102 points in 58 games. His 100th point was an assist on Reed Linaker's 36th goal of the season to knot the score at one. The 20-year-old right-winger also extended his point-scoring streak to 19 games (14 goals and 22 assists).
Defenceman Ryan Wilkinson (third), Baxter Niziol (sixth) and Phil Gervais (ninth) also scored against Patrick Terriss (13-5-1, 2.52 GAA), a St. Albert product in his rookie season with the Crusaders. Nolan Smith chipped in with two assists from the back end.
Last weekend the Steel dropped a 3-2 overtime decision to the Crusaders in St. Albert after blowing a 2-0 first period lead. "In that game we played from our defensive zone first. We got pucks out and then we worried about the offence," said Edens, a 20-year-old defenceman. "Tonight we weren't doing the little things on the defensive end and we couldn't hold them back."
After Wednesday's loss the Steel (23-28-2-5) trailed the Bonnyville Pontiacs (27-29-2-1) by four points with a game in hand in the race for fifth place in the north.
"There are still some things that needed to happen but if we win tonight we've got an opportunity to play these guys [Crusaders] in the playoffs," Parks said. "It's very disappointing. You would hope you would get a better effort when it's such a big game."
Oil Barons on tap
The win lifted the Crusaders (32-17-2-7) to within two points of the third-place Fort McMurray Oil Barons. The Steel hosted the Oil Barons (36-18-1-2) Friday, but the score was unavailable at press time. The potential first round opponents wrap up the regular season Sunday at Performance Arena at 2:30 p.m.
"It will be a battle trying to one-up each other right before the playoffs," Edens said. "It will be a good series. We have a rivalry going back to the [crap] they pulled last year [in a fight-filled weekend in Fort McMurray]."
Parks expects his players will ramp up the intensity after Wednesday's less than inspired showing.
"We can't take the foot off the gas pedal for a couple of games and expect to pick it up come playoff time," he said. "We can't control what happens in the standings, we just want to make sure that we're playing our best hockey come playoff time and coming off this performance I certainly hope we can raise the bar a little bit and get back to the level we were playing at.
"In this league there is a lot of parity. On any given night any team can beat anyone, it's just a matter of who shows up and who is the most committed team and who wants it the most and tonight we didn't want it enough. We were awful."
The Steel are winless in four games against the Oil Barons after Monday's 4-1 loss in Fort McMurray. Previous losses were 9-0 at home before the Christmas break and 4-1 and 8-4 the first weekend in January on the road.
The Steel deserved a better fate Monday. After the red-hot Perkins opened the scoring, the Oil Barons tallied twice in the second, with the go-ahead goal coming on the power play. In the third the Steel couldn't cash in a five-on-three advantage before the Oil Barons made it 3-1 with 3:36 remaining. They closed out the win with an empty netter. Shots were 40-24 for the Oil Barons, including a 15-5 spread in the third.
"You look at Monday's score and you think they took it to us a little bit but we were very competitive. It was the best game we've played against Fort McMurray this year by far," Parks said. "It shows that we can compete with them and these next two games are going to be very important for us to set the tone going into the playoffs."
The Steel skated into the weekend winless in two games while going 3-5-1-1 in their last 10. After the Christmas break they are 7-9-1-2.
"Before Christmas we would always take one step forward and two steps back or two steps forward and a step back. Since then we've been trying to get better every game but this was a step back, which is regrettable," said Edens, who traded haymakers with Trevor Conrad in a spirited fight late in Wednesday's tilt.
ICE CHIPS: The best-of-five opening playoff series in the north is expected to start Thursday. For the third year in a row the Steel will not have home ice advantage in the first round. They lost the 2008 series in the deciding game in double OT against the Grande Prairie Storm and last year bowed out in four games to the Crusaders.