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Oilers primed for southern showdown

If ever there was a heavyweight main event this is the one.
Okotoks Oilers goalie Riley Morris pushes out a rebound as Nolan Thompson of the Brooks Bandits lurks dangerously in front of goal during regular season action between the
Okotoks Oilers goalie Riley Morris pushes out a rebound as Nolan Thompson of the Brooks Bandits lurks dangerously in front of goal during regular season action between the teams.

If ever there was a heavyweight main event this is the one.

The number-one ranked team in the country Okotoks Oilers face their biggest test yet in the form of the two-time defending Alberta Junior Hockey League champion Brooks Bandits when the traditional foes clash in the best-of-seven South final this week.

“They’re the team that’s run away with this league in the last decade or so in the South Division,” said Oilers head coach Tyler Deis. “At the end of the day we’ve probably put ourselves in a better chance of having a chance to win this series with having home ice and what we’ve built our team around this year.

“They’re the team to beat, not just in the South, but in the league.”

This marks the third time in the past four years the division rivals have met in the post-season. Brooks won last year’s South final in five games and have won four of its five playoff series with Okotoks.

Then again, the Bandits have never faced an Oilers team like this one

“Our team is faster, our pace is faster, we’re probably a little more well rounded than last year,” Deis said. “I don’t think we’re the underdogs and they’re not the underdogs either. It’s just two really good teams that are coming in here.”

Bandits head coach Ryan Papaioannou sees it differently.

“We’re obviously the far outmatched underdog in the series,” he said. “It’s a team we haven’t beaten this year, a team that is on a heck of a run so we know we’re right up against it.

“It would be easy for us not to go into the series with the mentality that we could win. I think that’s the thing this week, is to try to make sure our guys have that feeling that we have a chance, go in there and see what happens.”

On the heels of a four-game sweep of the Camrose Kodiaks, the Oilers winning streak including the regular season is now up to 28 games. The team still hasn’t tasted defeat since the calendar turned over.

Brooks meanwhile, was on a torrid pace of its down the stretch with a number of key additions to the line-up gradually making their mark.

They swept the Canmore Eagles in the first-round and dispatched the Drumheller Dragons in six games in round number two.

Okotoks finished 15 points north of Brooks in the race for first. The Oilers won all six regular season meetings which played a large role in the points disparity.

“You swap our record against them this year and the records are pretty close,” Deis added. “Their team is getting well adjusted to what Ryan is trying to do and sometimes it takes a little longer with new guys, but I think they’re hitting on all cylinders now.

“Their defensive play is way better, their structure is way better.”

Moreover, five of the six meetings between the clubs took place prior to late-November with Brooks making major roster moves and Okotoks building with its base throughout the season.

“Earlier in the season we had a lot of guys that couldn’t get the job done or couldn’t figure it out under our system,” said Bandits forward Nolan Thompson, a member of the Oilers from 2014-17. “We had to make some moves, found a lot of really good guys who were able to fill those holes and produce a lot more. The team from September to now is completely different.”

The best defence just might be a good offence for Okotoks who plan to own the possession battle and dictate which zone the game is played.

“We definitely have to slow their forwards down here, especially on their entries and rushes,” Deis said. “And then we have to get on their defence. We’re going to have to put on a lot of pressure and be hard on pucks in their zone and try to eliminate their forwards as much as possible with time with the puck.”

Both teams bring high-end talent at every position to the ice along with considerable depth.

The Bandits feature the top scoring defenceman in the league in captain Dennis Cesana while the Oilers boast the AJHL’s Top Defenceman in sophomore sensation Jacob Bernard-Docker.

Brooks goaltender Mitch Benson led the province with 43 wins while Okotoks’ Riley Morris owned superior numbers in goals against average and save percentage and was voted the Top Goaltender.

The Oilers should hold a slight edge in special teams with the number two ranked penalty kill and fifth ranked powerplay compared to the Bandits third and ninth ranked units, respectively.

Okotoks’ powerplay was nothing short of spectacular in its sweep over Camrose as it scored on 6 of 19 opportunities on the man advantage.

“It’s going to be an awesome series, even as a spectator it will be something to see,” said Thompson, who Okotoks traded in the off-season. “It will be two really good teams going at it.

“The salty taste has never really left my mouth. This is kind of been the moment I’ve been dreaming of since last June, it’s finally here and it’s time to get it done.”

South final schedule

Game 1: Brooks at Okotoks, March 30, 7 p.m.Game 2: Brooks at Okotoks, March 31, 7 p.m.Game 3: Okotoks at Brooks, April 2, 7 p.m.Game 4: Okotoks at Brooks, April 3, 7 p.m.Game 5: Brooks at Okotoks, April 6, 7 p.m.Game 6: Okotoks at Brooks, April 8, 7 p.m.Game 7: Brooks at Okotoks, April 10, 7 p.m.

Remy Greer

About the Author: Remy Greer

Remy Greer is the assistant editor and sports reporter for Okotokstoday.ca and the Western Wheel newspaper. For story tips contact rgreer@okotoks.greatwest.ca
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