Image provided by Game Ready Photography
“Take me home, country roads, to the place, I belong…”
The atmosphere was light, jovial, and excited in the away dressing room at Revolution Arena in Grande Prairie on Wednesday night.
The Bonnyville Pontiacs had just swept Whitecourt and Grande Prairie on a mini two game road swing, and now the players could focus on getting home to Porcupine, Ontario, Drummondville, Quebec, or Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, for Christmas.
“We expected the Grande Prairie Storm to play hard. They’re coming on a four out of five game heater. They’re a much improved team. Matt Keeler is a good coach; he’s got them playing very well. They play really hard, and they finish checks and they force you to finish everything. And I thought tonight they certainly did that,” said Coach Rick Swan after the Pontiacs 4-2 against the Storm.
“We had to make sure we got through this hour to make sure our bus road was happy going home. I liked our compete overall considering it being the last game before Christmas,” he said.
The team bus dropped most of the team off in Westlock at 2am Thursday morning, exchanging Merry Christmas greetings to their coaching staff, and prepping themselves for layovers and more travel.
They will return to action in 2019 with the Pontiacs best start in franchise history: a 26-8-2 record through 36 games.
That’s already six more wins than all of the 2017-18 season (20-32-8) and miles ahead of their seventh place divisional finish.
They sit two points back of the Sherwood Park Crusaders for first – but what’s more, the players and the coaching staff have an expectation to win every game because they know they’re capable.
“We’ve never been here before. That was the journey I talk about so often. Why don’t we do something that will get us to a position that we’ve never before,” said Swan.
“You can just see how tight-knit this group is and just how close they are. How they have that chemistry. It’s a special thing and you get a sense of the type of culture we build here in Bonnyville.”
Only nine players from last season’s roster and are on the team right now, a clear indication of the team’s influx of talent at skill positions.
After burying the Whitecourt Wolverines 6-2 on Tuesday night thanks to a four goal explosion in the first period, the Pontiacs knew the Grande Prairie Storm, winners of four of their last five, were not to be taken lightly.
They left with a 4-2 win and never trailed: Grayson Constable, Cayden Kraus, Trey Thomas, Isaac Saniga getting the markers.
“We were on the powerplay and I was skating up top on the blue. Didn’t really see anything, just saw Thorny [Lucas Thorne] in front of the net, so walked it down the half wall and just took a shot,” said Constable who scored on a laser near the faceoff dot to make it 1-0.
Constable is a prime example of the Pontiacs off-season transformation. He plays physically and uses his 6’2” 201lbs frame to rub out players in the neutral zone. He gallops when chasing loose pucks, scores goals, and plays first-line and special team’s minutes.
The game got much more interesting in the third period when Cruz Cote deflected Xavier Pouliot’s point shot to move within a goal.
But Colby Muise, another major off-season acquisition coming from the OJHL’s North York Rangers, was perfect from there on out, stopping 10 of 11 total shots.
“He made the game saver…and the two goals they got on him were kind of fluky bounces off people, which is how you’re going to beat a goalie when he’s in the zone like that.
“Some of those saves out there, as a coach sometimes you just shake your head and go ‘how the heck did he make that.’ But he certainly motivated and elevated our guys to be up the task which was get four points.”
Isaac Saniga’s rush down the right wing and wrister gave the Pontiacs the extra cushion.
Colby Muise and backup Easton Hesse split victories on the brief trip and are each top ten in the AJHL in goals against. Starter Colby Muise boasts a 17-7-1 record, a 2.33 GAA and a .917 SV%, good enough for 8th in the league. Hesse actually sits 2nd in the league in GAA with a low 2.05 in 11 games.
Not a bad problem to have.
Marc-Antoine Benoit leads the team in points with 35. The “Kitty Line” with Daine Dubois (29 points) and Trey Thomas (26 points), slots as the third trio on the Pontiacs depth chart, but scores almost every night, and has three of the team’s four top scorers.
Newcomer Lucas Reeves has 5 points in as many games. Reeves said he left his college team in Montreal to find a better league to play in, and is certainly finding his fit with the Pontiacs. The 18-year-old is shifty, crafty, and his offensive ability adds another layer to the Pontiacs top-six when the calendar flips.
And you can’t forget about the defense either.
The Yaks top four of Jeremy Gervais-Luke Albert and Matthew Monk- Sean Thomson all are above 20 points or close. Not only do they score, but they are mobile and trustworthy.
The Pontiacs will play 24 games before the regular season finishes, and they hope for a long playoffs to set more team records along the way.
“We know the hockey is going to get better in the second half. Every team elevates and we’re in a good position now to allow us to elevate with these teams, because there’s going to be no easy games at all,” said Coach Swan.
On Jan. 1, 2019, the Camrose Kodiaks will host the Pontiacs, and then the team will play their first AJHL game at home in over a month on Jan. 4 against the Olds Grizzlys.