Kodiaks revved up for Mustangs
Camrose Kodiaks forward Tyler Schendel battles with Calgary Mustangs forward Brad Forrest during a meeting earlier this season in Camrose. The two teams open up their Alberta Junior Hockey League best-of-five playoff series on Thursday in Camrose. File photo/Camrose Canadian
Three months ago the Camrose Kodiaks would have just been happy to make the playoffs. Tonight they open up against the Calgary Mustangs on home ice.
It represents a major jump in development and evolution of the club as they rebuilt on the fly and found a way to claw back to a .500 record when early on the season looked lost.
Now they are hoping to use their home-ice advantage in the first round of the Alberta Junior Hockey league playoffs to go on a deep run.
"I believe, the players believe, that we've got the best fans in the country," said Kodiaks head coach and general manager Boris Rybalka. "I think the fans underestimate how powerful they are … (The noise) makes fans excited, it makes players excited, it makes atmosphere. The fans don't understand that when they're making noise and they're cheering the players feed off of that."
Instead of starting in Calgary where the Mustangs draw between 100 and 200 fans a game, they will be hoping to ride the momentum that the 1,000 to 1,500 fans in Encana Arena will bring.
The season has been a rollercoaster for that fan base.
The Kodiaks went from last place on Nov. 4 and went 20-15-6 the rest of the way to claw into fourth place in the AJHL South Division.
The club has been a work in progress all season, initially attempting to go with a mostly rookie blue-line before bringing in Nick Sutter, Peter Kope and Dawson Schwengler on defence while stabilizing the crease with veteran backstop Luke Lush. Offensively they have had to play it by committee for much of the season with captain Ryan Hartman missing three months to a concussion. American rookie Brock Bremer has been a revelation up front driving the offence for the Kodiaks, finishing with a team best 62 points (19 goals, 43 assists) in 58 games while Kyler Kupka has rediscovered his form and scored 59 points (29-30-59) in 59 games.
The Calgary Mustangs, meanwhile, have had a hot and cold season, and even won the season series with the Kodiaks with a 5-1-0 edge with two wins coming in extra time.
Still Rybalka believes they can take Calgary in the best-of-five series.
"When you look at the series against the Mustangs, a lot of the games we out played them, a lot of the games we out shot them, so it is a little deceiving," said Rybalka. "When we get our opportunities … in the playoffs it’s a new story we capitalize on those shots on net, we capitalize when we out play them."
The Kodiaks will, however, go into the post season on a bit of a slide, losing three of their last four games, including 5-1 to the Brooks Bandits on Friday and 4-1 to the Okotoks Oilers on Saturday. The last weekend of the season was all about resting bumps and bruises and healing from the flu that swept through the locker room.
With top players including Ryan Hartman, Zack Vinnel, Brock Bremer, McKenzie Welke, Peter Kope, and Nic Sutter all out of the lineup, Rybalka had several affiliates dressed in their place – Ben Wood, Bjorn Robinson, Dallon Melin and Rybalka was impressed with what he saw.
"We've been in enough playoff scenarios where we know those young guys are going to get in," said Rybalka. "I thought they did very well … I though Melin for a 15-year-old played very well, I thought Wood – a 16-year-old defenceman – I thought he as solid and the same with Robinson. They knew they were coming in and playing Brooks and Okotoks and we thought that was a great way to see what these young guys could do."
Home-ice advantage is also critical for more than any perceived edge on the ice, it gives them a fighting chance off of it as well.
"In junior hockey, if you don't get home-ice advantage in the first round, you've lost money," said Rybalka. "When you look at million dollar budgets to run junior A hockey … it's hopefully break-even in the regular season. A lot of teams now are losing money in the regular season and they need the playoff money to hopefully break-even … With home-ice, you know you're guaranteed those home games and if you sweep the other team, they only get that one game and that's a big difference for surviving and not surviving in junior hockey."
Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-five series go Thursday and Friday in Camrose at 7 p.m. with Game 3 set for Sunday in Calgary at 7:30 p.m. If Game 4 is needed it will be on Monday in Calgary at 7:30 p.m. with Game 5 on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Camrose.