It was another wild and wacky weekend of Canada West action, with the Alberta Golden Bears clinching first place overall, and the rest of the playoff race getting a whole lot more interesting heading into the final regular season week in a weekend dominated by Alberta based squads.
Bears lock up top spot - After stumbling through the month of January it's been back to business for Alberta who came out this weekend and despite some spotty play at times was able to earn a pair of wins over Manitoba, and in doing so clinched first in Canada West and home ice in the playoffs.
Friday night, a third period comeback from Manitoba pushed things into overtime after Alberta had built up a 3-1 lead in the third. The Golden Bears saw that slip away after Jared Walker and captain Mike Hellyer scored 1:15 apart in the final 20 less than two minutes after the Bears Derek Ryan had given his team a two goal cushion. The remaining 12:46 of the third and five minutes of overtime solved nothing, as the game went to a shootout. In the skills competition it was the Bears captain Eric Hunter that would seal the deal with the SO's lone goal, lifting his squad to a 4-3 win.
The following night it was more of the same between the Bisons and Bears. Leading again late, Alberta blew a 3-2 lead with 2:23 to go in the third when Jordan Cyr equalized. That goal - which would send the game to OT - was monumental for Manitoba, as they guaranteed themselves a single point to move ahead of Lethbridge for the fourth and final playoff spot (more on that later). But again for the Herd, it was not to be: Alberta would emerge with a 4-3 win, this time in OT thanks to a nice play by defenceman Colin Joe who squeezed a wrister through the legs of Manitoba netminder Steve Christie.
With four points and back-to-back losses by Saskatchewan in Lethbridge, the Bears clinched first place in the conference and now need to win just two games in the CW semis to punch their ticket to Fredericton for the University Cup. As for Manitoba, their two point weekend was crucial, staying just ahead of the charging Lethbridge Pronghorns who once again this season are going to take their playoff push down to the wire.
Saskatchewan stalls in Southern Alberta - No one saw a true four point weekend coming in Lethbridge this weekend - at least for the home side. All the credit in the world has to be given the Pronghorns for their effort this weekend, as they swept the visiting number-five ranked Saskatchewan Huskies in two must-win games for the Southern Alberta squad.
In the first affair on Friday night Lethbridge was paced by a two goal performance by Tyler Melancon who scored his fifth and sixth goals of the season in a 5-3 Pronghorns win. Saturday night Melancon once again factored on the scoresheet picking up another marker to go along with an assist, but it was veteran Dustin Moore who had a pair of goals including an empty netter to cap a 4-2 Lethbridge win.
The pair of losses plummeted Saskatchewan out of a race for first and into a position where a playoff spot is no longer a given. The Huskies haven't clinched a playoff spot, and are just two points up on Manitoba for third. The Sled Dogs should be headed to the playoffs, but thanks to their poor showing this weekend a home playoff series is not a given. Lethbridge on the other hand will need the Huskies to bounce back next week in Winnipeg if they hope to make the playoffs. The 'Horns finish up the season with two games in Calgary, and very likely could need another sweep to make the playoffs. The 'Horns need to finish outright in fourth ahead of Manitoba in points since the Bisons own the tie-breaker.
Dinos sweep Regina to leapfrog Dogs - Calgary like their fellow Alberta-based teams swept this weekend at home against the Regina Cougars. The pair of wins for Calgary made sure they are postseason bound, joining Alberta as the only other team guaranteed of a playoff spot with only one week to go.
Calgary rookie goalie Kriz Lazaruk stopped all 19 Regina shots on Friday night, with Jerrid Sauer and Walker Wintoneak providing the scoring in a 2-0 Calgary win. In the series finale the next night on the eve of the Heritage Classic in Cowtown, the Dinos again would score a win over the last place Cougars, this time 3-1 with Dustin Butler - who presumably will be the number-one in the playoffs - getting the win.
The Dinos are now in the driver's seat to clinch second next weekend at home against Lethbridge in what should be an entertaining and high-intensity series. Regina has been out of the picture for some time now with their season coming to a merciful end after an 8-18-2 and a whopping 611 PIM.