Courtesy of @AndrewBrethauer lloydminstersource.com
The AJHL playoff picture is beginning to take shape. Four teams have clinched playoff spots in the North division, which includes the Lloydminster Bobcats, who are back in third place after a short dip into fourth.
However, while the ‘Cats are happy to know their season will continue into the playoffs, they also know that all they have earned is a spot in the playoffs, and there is still a lot of opportunities left.
“It’s always nice to know you are going to be able to go and compete in the playoffs, (but) really, that’s all we clinched was an opportunity,” said Bobcats head coach Garry VanHereweghe.
“What we do with that opportunity is what’s going to be tell-tale. Who we play and when we play will be determined as we moved forward. These seven remaining games will be an intricate part of where we will end up.”
Winners of their last two, the Bobcats will play three games in four nights starting with back-to-back road games against Whitecourt, before returning home for a Monday night game against Bonnyville.
The Bobcats retook the third place spot from Sherwood Park with the two victories, but only hold a slim two-point lead over the Crusaders. And Bonnyville is just back in the rear view mirror, six points behind the ‘cats, as they look for home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
It was the goal of Lloydminster to make the playoffs this season. After VanHereweghe cleared a lot of the older players off the team to start the season and brought in youth and depth, the ‘Cats wanted to compete enough to play post-season hockey.
With that goal now complete, the new one is to remain in the top four of the north division, and earn themselves two home games to start the playoffs.
The Centennial Civic Centre has been as safe a place as any as of late for the Bobcats, as they have won six straight in front of the hometown fans.
“We definitely want to be in the top four,” said VanHereweghe. “It gives you home-ice advantage in the playoffs right off the bat, at least for that first round. For us, that’s very beneficial. We’re coming off winning six in a row at home, and we have played some strong teams. But we also know we are not going to rely on having home-ice advantage, (or) that that is going to carry us through any given series. We know we have to be a team that can win on the road.”
Consistency has been the Bobcats biggest opponent this season, as Lloydminster has been able to string together winning streaks throughout the season, but have also had some streaks go the wrong way. As of late, the Bobcats have defeated Spruce Grove – the top team in the North – twice, but dropped games to Sherwood Park and Drayton Valley in between those wins.
It’s been an issue addressed in the locker room between the players and coaches, as with seven games remaining, and a lot of change still to come to the North Division, the Bobcats will look to get on a roll heading into the playoffs in March.
“It’s important for us to win every game and get every two points we can just to try and secure that third-fourth spot minimum,” said VanHereweghe. “Certainly that’s our goal. To get out on the road and go into a place like Whitecourt, it’s a tough rink to win in. But you’re going to have to win in those arenas if you’re going to advance in the playoffs. I think we need to get out and prove to ourselves that we are more than capable of winning there.
“So it’s not only the importance of the points going into the playoffs, but it’s also important to get some momentum going in the playoffs if you are going to into the Whitecourt’s and Sherwood Park’s and Fort McMurrary’s.”
VanHereweghe said the ‘Cats feel capable of winning, not only against teams lower than them, but also against the higher challenges from Spruce Grove and Fort McMurray. Lloydminster’s final two games of the season are against the Oil Barons.
Monday’s home game against Bonnyville has a 7:30 p.m. puck drop