If the Grande Prairie Storm fans got to pick who their team played in the first round of the Alberta Junior Hockey League playoffs chances are they would have chosen the Whitecourt Wolverines.
The Wolverines are the Storm's closest rival, which means for a short road trip to cheer on their favorite team. They got their wish on Sunday when the Fort McMurray Oil Barons defeated the Wolverines to capture the AJHL North Division pennant and keep Whitecourt in second place.
Not that the fans think the Wolverines will be a push-over. The Wolverines finished second in the North Division of the AJHL – 51 points in ahead of the seventh place Storm – and downed the Storm five of six times in the regular season.
The best-of-five quarterfinal opens Thursday and continues Friday in Whitecourt and then switches to Grande Prairie for Game 3 on Sunday, March 12 at 7:30 p.m. in Revolution Arena.
“We look forward to the challenge and hope the fans get behind us – especially when we play at home next Sunday,” said Storm head coach/general manager Matt Keillor, who helped guide the Storm to their first playoff appearance since 2013.
Keillor took over the Storm reins in early-December. The team, which finished at 15-38-7, recorded eight wins with Keillor in charge including a 5-4 victory over the Wolverines when the two teams last met on January 11 in Grande Prairie.
When the two teams tangle to open the playoffs the Storm will be up against the top two point-getters in the North Division.
Mitch Lipon, 20, had 25 goals and 48 assists during the regular season. The Regina, SK native played most of his junior career in major junior with the Spokane Chiefs, Saskatoon Blades and Kamloops Blazers before joining the Wolverines this season.
Justin Young, 19, has averaged over 69 points a year since joining the team three years ago. The Leduc, AB native finished four points back of Lipon.
Much of the Storm offence will be on the shoulders of the North's fifth leading scorer – Michael Clarke.
The Medicine Hat, AB native had 31 goals and 31 assists this season. Clarke, just 18, is in his second year with the Storm after starting his junior career with the AJHL Calgary Canucks.
Whitecourt was easily the highest scoring team in the league this year with 254 goals compared to 146 for the Storm. The Wolverines were third overall in goals-against in the North allowing 156 to the Storm's 253.
Pierce Diamond was the league's sixth best goalie with a 2.24 goals against average, 27 wins in 39 games, five shutouts and a .906 save percentage.
To get by the Wolverines the Storm are going to have to rely heavily on netminder Arik Weersink. He was 23rd overall in the league with a 3.63 goals against average 13 wins in 42 appearances and a .890 save percentage.
The Wolverines made a great debut in the league going to the final their first year (2012-13) after finishing fourth. Since then they have gone sixth, seventh and second two years in a row losing in the first round in 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 and last spring lost out to the Lloydminster Bobcats in the second round.
They head into this year`s playoffs with a new piece to the puzzle – Gord Thibodeau, the coach with the most wins in the history of the AJHL. He set the record of 833 in early-February.
“Whitecourt is a very skilled team and under Gord will be a very tough opponent,“ said Keillor.
While the Wolverines have Thibodeau the Storm – AJHL champions in 2004 and 2009 – will no doubt have a large and boisterous crowd behind them when the series switches to Grande Prairie.
“The team really feeds off the energy of the crowd and we hope that energy is amplified in the playoffs. Our fans in Grande Prairie have been excellent and the team can`t wait to give them something to cheer for.“
For every player on the team this will be their first playoff experience wearing a Storm uniform.
“We are excited to get to work here over the next few days,“ said Keillor.
It goes without saying Storm fans are excited too about the prospect of post season play.