CANMORE – Sure, it’s the playoffs and anything can happen, but as far as first round opponents, the Canmore Eagles have got to be feeling pretty good about this one.
The puck drops Friday (March 10) for the first round of the playoffs in the Alberta Junior A Hockey League and the sixth seed Eagles match-up against the third seed Drumheller Dragons in a best-of-seven series.
Games one and two are Friday and Saturday (March 10-11) in Drumheller. Puck drop is 7 p.m. for both games. The series then comes to the mountains Tuesday and Wednesday (March 14-15) for games three and four. Puck drop for both is 7 p.m.
The anticipated series features a pair of Canmore born and raised rookies, Owen Jones and Finn McLaughlin, who are feeling all the normal emotions that come with the glory and heartache of the hard-nosed postseason.
Suiting up in blue and white, the locals fondly remembered being youngsters running up to fist-bump the Eagles as they skated on and off the ice at the Alex Kaleta arena.
“It’s a dream come true, for sure,” said Jones, 18. “Growing up [and] watching the Eagles play in the playoffs and now I’m doing it. It’s pretty crazy.”
Jones suited up for the Eagles in last year’s playoffs, but this was his first full season with the team. He finished 10th among rookies in scoring with 19 goals and 37 points – three points shy of what the 18-year-old forward had set out for at the beginning of the campaign.
“For me and Finn [McLaughlin], I know a lot of people are going to come watch us and it’s going to be a packed house, so I think we’re going to have butterflies going into the game, but I think we’re going to be really excited and ready to play as well,” said Jones.
“With Drum’, they’re a hard opponent, but I think we’re going to settle good against them because we outplayed them in the season-series, so I really think we can bring that into the playoffs.”
In convincing fashion, the Eagles won the season-series 5-1-0-0 over Drumheller, while putting up some of their best offensive numbers.
One area the Eagles feel there’s an advantage is finding cracks in the Dragons’ line-up and firing shots on net.
The Drumheller Dragons’ netminders blew smoke against Eagles shooters, who averaged 4.5 goals per game (GPG) in six games this season compared to the 3.01 against the league. An eye-opening statistic that should confidently be in the back of Canmore’s mind – and a concern in Drumheller’s – is that of the five times the Eagles have chased a starting goalie out of the net in 2022-23, four of those were against the Dragons.
On the power play, the Eagles’ production jumped nearly 10 per cent against the badlands boys. Canmore’s season average was 15.4 per cent – one of the lowest in the AJHL, but in six games against the Dragons, that shot up to a fiery 25 per cent.
Drumheller’s power play was better against Canmore too, increasing to also 25 per cent efficiency from 20.8 per cent.
On the other end, the Eagles top two goalies – Andreai Proctor-Ramirez and Matthew Malin – each made cases to be the main guy in net this season. However, there shouldn’t be any debate on who will be tasked as the numero uno dragonslayer Friday night in Drumheller.
Going 3-0-0 with a .942 save percentage, Canmore’s all-star Proctor-Ramirez may as well be known as the warden because he has put the Drumheller boys on lockdown this season.
The 21-year-old from Paradise Hill battled through a rough start of the season to be the most consistent Canmore starter between the pipes down the stretch.
Malin has respectively gone 2-1-0 with a .897 save percentage against the first-round opponent.
Overall, Drumheller averaged 3.5 goals-per-game (GPG) against the Eagles’ goalies, which is slightly below the team’s average (3.8 GPG).
Despite some lopsided stats, the Eagles say they aren’t taking the Dragons lightly.
“The regular season is what it is. The playoffs are a whole different animal,” said McLaughlin. “We’re going to treat them like we’re going to treat the best team in the world.
“So really just going in, working as hard as we can and to make sure we can play as long as we can and hopefully win a championship.”
In the Dragons’ lone win against the Eagles in late January, they breathed fire on home ice in the 8-0 scorcher.
At that point in the campaign, Canmore’s injuries had piled to the ceiling and lack of depth had piled up to the ceiling, including McLaughlin, who broke his wrist playing in a game in January. The recently turned 17-year-old defenceman missed seven weeks, but returned to the line-up for the final five games.
The Eagles are “the healthiest they’ve been all season” as they enter the playoffs.
“I’m feeling really good now,” said McLaughlin. “The first game or two were a little rusty getting back into a competitive game mindset.”
McLaughlin finished the season with four goals and 21 points in his rookie campaign.
Canmore captain Vincent Scott had a career year, scoring 26 goals and 67 points to be the only Eagle to crack 50 points. Kayden Smith, who earlier in the season received actor Jon Hamm’s hat after scoring a hat trick, was second in the team’s offensive production with 14 goals and 44 points.
In comparison, Drumheller had five players with more points than Smith, including forwards Ty Daneault (37 goals, 65 points) and Vann Yuhas (16 goals, 60 points) who lead the Dragons in scoring.
Andrew Milne, Eagles head coach and general manager said he’s going to rely on some of the veterans to help set the tone in order to extinguish the Dragons’ potent attack. He said defence, being smart with the puck, and mental toughness – something the team has gotten used to with injuries and player movement – will be key in the series.
“I like the tenacity of our group. I like the fact that we battled through a lot of adversity and I think our guys played some great hockey throughout it,” said Milne.
“You play 60 games to get prepared for this and I think we are. We’ve had a roller-coaster season and we’ve been through a ton of emotions and I think we’re prepared for whatever the emotions of the playoffs bring.”
McLaughlin, who suits up for his first AJHL playoff game Friday, said once the puck drops and the hardnosed play begins, all the pre-game butterflies will float away and he’ll just be playing the game he’s suited up for since he was four years old.
“It’s going to be a little bit surreal for me, growing up and watching these guys, it’s been a dream of mine so its’ going to be super fun,” said McLaughlin.
If necessary, the series would go to Drumheller for games five and seven. Game six would be in Canmore.
In the south’s other first round match-ups, the Blackfalds Bulldogs (2) take on the Calgary Canucks (7), and the Okotoks Oilers (4) go against the Camrose Kodiaks (5). The Brooks Bandits (1) received a first-round bye.