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Wednesday , 25 May 2022

After great season, Pontiacs begin at square one with playoffs starting

For the first time since March 2020, the Bonnyville Pontiacs will be in a playoff game.

After a 36 win season, the 6th most all-time in franchise history, the Yaks will host the Whitecourt Wolverines in a battle of the 3rd and 6th seeds in the AJHL North Division.

These teams played the final weekend of regular season games splitting a win apiece. That’s trended the same way in the season-series, as the Pontiacs went 3-2-1 against the Wolverines.

Bonnyville’s own AJ Macaulay and Austin Saint, along with assistant coach Derek Hemsley, joined After Hours with Michael Menzies on Monday night to discuss the playoff series, and the local stars’ news of being named league finalists for Outstanding Defenceman and Most Dedicated Player, respectively.

In Hemsley’s eyes, discipline is going to be a big key in the series. The Yaks got whistled for 14 penalties in the weekend games, and leaned upon a much improved penalty kill over the final month to surrender just one goal while a man down.

In February, the Yaks PK operated at 90 per cent, allowing just four goals against.

“It’s gonna be really important for us to be disciplined and stick to our game plan,” said Hemsley to Michael Menzies on After Hours. “They like to pressure the puck. We worked even this morning just on pressure breakouts and how to bypass their pressure and where we can find our middle options. I think that’s going to be key for us just in terms of creating clean access, so we can create clean entries and attack off the rush,” he said. 

“But once we get on the powerplay, we have to find a way to bury, we find a lot of opportunities and a lot of good looks. But we’ve just hit a post and we’ve hit the goalie, it’s been shot into sticks. We just haven’t found a way. I think once we start burying those opportunities, we can put teams away with a powerplay — that’s how deadly it is.” 

Macaulay punctuates terrific season

AJ Macaulay plays in all situations, often 25-30 minutes a night, and as one of the team’s most consistent performers there is no doubt he is a deserving finalist for the AJHL’s Outstanding Defenceman award.

A shutdown defender who often finds the first pass out of the zone, a shot blocker who stands in and soaks pucks, and at times, a timely goal scorer that can bring fans to their feet — Macaulay didn’t expect the recognition.

“Kash [Rasmussen] just texted me, it was kind of a blatant text, like not real much information. And so I was a little bit confused. Because I didn’t see the posts or anything and so I kind of just thought he was talking about himself a little bit,” joked Macaulay about the team captain, who was also named a finalist for League MVP. 

“There’s a lot of good players in this league and to be one of the top four defenseman in the league is a huge accomplishment. Coming in as a rookie in the league, I didn’t expect to see my name on that kind of list for sure. But hard work and dedication and just a want to get better  pays off.” 

Despite being a 2002-born player, this will be Macaulay’s final season wearing the shield, as he will go to University of Alaska-Fairbanks in the fall.

He put together 9 goals, 33 assists, and just 34 penalty minutes while suiting up 56 times this year. Macaulay will be leaned upon a lot as the Pontiacs push this post-season.

Saint’s determination noticed across AJHL 

It wasn’t the easiest road to the Alberta Junior Hockey League for Austin Saint. But the strong, physical forward began the season on a torrent scoring pace, firing 20 goals home before Christmas and established himself as a big part of the club.

After breaking his ankle in 2019-20 to recovering within a few months to complete the season with the Cold Lake Ice, Saint was one of four 20 goal scorers for the Pontiacs this year.

In part, that ability to rehab and continue building his strength is a reason why Saint is a finalist for the Most Dedicated Player in the AJHL.

“I kind of just went for a hit and fell backwards and the blade of my skate kind of just stuck in the ice behind me and I just fell over top of it. I didn’t really think too much of it at the time. I didn’t really feel it to be honest. I think I was kind of just in shock. And then I remember Krooner [Josh Kroon], one of my old teammates, he was like, come on, just get up. And I couldn’t move…so that wasn’t very pleasant. And yeah, it was a long road back,” said Saint. 

While the COVID-pause may have stunted the growth of junior hockey players, the fact the AJHL was able to return for a little more than a dozen games last spring proved valuable for the likes of Saint.

He was one of the team’s leading scorers in the abbreviated year, which he immediately parleyed into a hot start for 2021. The news of being a finalist for the award though came as a surprise.

“A bunch of my teammates found out before I did, they kind of just walked in and told me and I didn’t really know what to think about it,” said Saint. “It was definitely nice to be recognized. You know, the award hasn’t been given yet. Obviously it would be nice to win that. But you never know. There’s lots of good players in this league and guys who are dedicated. So just to be in that conversation is pretty special and it’s definitely humbling as well.” 

As a 20-year-old, this will be Saint’s final season with the team as well. He finished the campaign with 23 goals, 17 assists, including a team-leading 10 powerplay markers.

For both him and Macaulay, they’d love to take Bonnyville on a deep playoff run.

“We’re gonna make history,” said Saint.

Playoff schedule

  • Friday, March 4, Game 1 vs Whitecourt | RJ Lalonde Arena at 7:00pm
  • Saturday, March 5, Game 2 vs Whitecourt | RJ Lalonde Arena at 7:00pm
  • Tuesday, March 8, Game 3 at Whitecourt | Scott Safety Centre at 7:30pm
  • Wednesday, March 9 Game 4 at Whitecourt | Scott Safety Centre at 7:30pm
  • *Friday, March 11 Game 5 vs Whitecourt | RJ Lalonde Arena at 7:00pm
  • *Sunday, March 13 Game 6 at Whitecourt | Scott Safety Centre at 7:30pm
  • *Tuesday, March 15 Game 7 vs Whitecourt | RJ Lalonde Arena at 7:00pm

(*If necessary).

There are no longer Government of Alberta restrictions on capacity limits, nor is there a requirement to wear a mask at the game.

You can listen to the games on www.lakelandconnect.net/pontiacs.

About Michael Menzies

Menzies is the editor-at-large for Connected Media Inc. Born and raised in Vermilion, he started in May 2018 during his NAIT Radio and Television practicum and reports on local politics, sports, and community issues. He became the Bonnyville Pontiacs play-by-play voice during the 2019-20 season. He also comments on provincial and national issues. Menzies hosts Connected! Evening Monday-Thursday at 5 o’clock. He also likes to buy books and read some of them.