The Grande Prairie Storm wrapped up their Alberta Junior Hockey League schedule Sunday with a 5-1 win over the Lloydminster Bobcats in Revolution Place Arena Sunday and now they will be looking to do something they have not done since the spring of 2010.
It was in March eight years ago the Storm defeated the Bobcats 3-1 in a best-of-five North Division quarterfinal. That was the last time they had playoff success.
Wednesday they open a best-of-five quarterfinal against the Sherwood Park Crusaders at 7:30 p.m. in Revolution Place Arena and they no doubt head into the series with some optimism.
The Storm have an 18-10-2 home record and have scored the third-most goals among all teams in the North Division with 212.
They also have three of the top 10 point getters in the league in their lineup – Justin Bernier (78), Edouard Michaud (73) and Dallas Comeau (68). And the AJHL Rookie-Of-The-Year in Zach Okabe who scored 22 goals and added 35 assists in his first year in the league.
Shoring up the defence will no doubt be the goal heading into the post-season. The Storm were sixth in the division with 225 goals allowed in 60 games.
Playoff success usually starts in net.
With veteran Charles-Olivier Levesque day-to-day with a lower body injury, the netminding duties may fall to rookie Ethan Slobodzian and affiliated player Lars Kaliel.
Slobodzian, who turns 19 in May, had played in five straight after Levesque had gone down with his injury against the Whitecourt Wolverines in February. He appeared in 19 games with seven wins and 10 losses and a 3.74 goals against average in his first year in a Storm sweater.
Kaliel, just 16, got his first Junior A start on Sunday and earned himself first star honours while making 22 saves. The Midget AAA Storm product was very solid as he and another 16-year-old at the other end, Andreai Proctor-Ramirez, went to-to-toe in what was a bit of a shoot-out. Proctor-Ramirez looked at 46 shots and faced a penalty shot (there was actually no shot) by Jared Power in the second period.
Considering the Storm had finished seventh, eighth, eighth and eighth in their last four seasons ending up in fourth this year with a 28-29-3 record and the first two games, and possibly Game 5, on home ice ended, what was a pretty good regular season.
“I'm very proud of the hard work our entire staff put in last summer,” said Storm head coach/assistant general manager Matt Keillor of the group that assembled the team. “Home ice advantage is a huge accomplishment.”
One more win would have meant a .500 season, but the 59 points the team collected this year is a huge improvement over the 37, 26, 34 and 45 they had over the four seasons heading into 2017-2018.
In six games between the two teams this year the Crusaders won three outright while the Storm won two in regulation and one in extra time.
Last year the Storm made the playoffs and bowed out in three straight to the Whitecourt Wolverines. They had missed the playoffs the previous three years and in 2012-13 took on the Crusaders in the first round losing in four games.
In 2011-12 (Fort McMurray Oil Barons) and 2010-11 (Bobcats) it was first round existing and in 2009-10 after downing the Bobcats in the first round they bowed out in the second to the MOB.
That, however, is all water under the bridge. It's a new year and a new outlook led by guys like Bernier, Michaud, Okabe and Comeau, who earned himself an NCAA scholarship last week.
Comeau, Michaud and Okabe all scored on Sunday while Connor Blake, let's not forget about him, had a pair – his 27th and 28th of the season.
Comeau was a bit of a surprise starter after taking a match penalty for spearing on Saturday. That infraction was deemed not suspendable so he will be around to start the playoffs.
Only Lloydminster goal was scored by Braydon Jenkins.
The Bobcats will face off against the Wolverines while the MOB take on the Bonnyville Pontiacs in the other quarterfinals.
Game 2 in the GP-Sherwood series goes Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Revolution before the series switches to Sherwood Parks for games Saturday and Sunday (if needed). Game 5, if needed, would be in Grande Prairie March 14.