Bonnyville Pontiacs goaltender Easton Hesse.
With 20 games to play before playoffs begin, the Bonnyville Pontiacs are in a sprint for second place in the AJHL North Division only two points behind the Spruce Grove Saints.
Thomas Kramer scored two third-period goals and Easton Hesse made 41 saves in a 5-2 win over the Lloydminster Bobcats to gain more ground on the Edmonton-area rivals on Monday.
The Pontiacs finished off the month of December with a 7-2 record and a 26-10-2 record with two months to play.
January, however, marks the most crucial stretch of the season for the Pontiacs.
“It’s going to become magnified each and every single day because of people plying for positions in the standings. Games are important to everybody, especially teams that are lower in the standings than us and we have to take our approach to play the right way each and every single day because if we do that, then we’ll be where we want to be at the very end,” said Coach Rick Swan earlier this week.
After this weekend’s pair against the Drayton Valley Thunder, the Pontiacs play the AJHL’s top six teams in the next eight games, including the Sherwood Park Crusaders and Spruce Grove Saints twice each within a week.
It marks a clear opportunity for Bonnyville as they host the Whitecourt Wolverines and Okotoks Oilers down the stretch in five of six straight home games, before heading to Brooks and Drumheller for their final southern road trip.
“We learned last year that you just can’t flick a light switch just because it’s playoffs. We learned that from the Spruce Grove series. We are a good team all year, but we never really mentally committed to play the right way earlier,” said Swan.
“That’s kind of where the lessons learned from last year to this year’s team. We think we’ve got the right character in that dressing room, we think that we’ve got the right buy-in that dressing room.”
Lucas Thorne, Matt McKim, and Daine Dubois remain one of the league’s most potent offensive groups.
Thorne is 7th in AJHL scoring with 57 points (21 goals and 36 assists) and McKim is 9th with 54 points (14 goals and 40 assists).
Reilly Connors has settled into a role on the third line with Joel Ray and Jaden York, scoring six points in the past six games, while Justin Stathopoulos has quietly been on a four-game point streak on the 4th line.
Meanwhile, the team is settling back to full health.
Forward Andy Bridgewater is nearing his Pontiacs debut after being medically cleared for action earlier this week.
The former Calgary Mustang has been nursing a broken hand.
Defenceman Cayden Shmyr should be back in action soon as well after dealing with a lower-body injury.
Josh Kroon and Justin Stathopoulos, who each missed Monday’s game due to illness or a minor injury, should both return on Friday.
Bonnyville-native Austin Saint’s lower-body injury is healing after being out for two months.
The final roster cutoff date is Jan. 10 which will be the last opportunity for the Pontiacs to make major changes to their team.