Southern comfort for Jr. Bisons
Hockey: Okotoks locks up division crown, eyes top-spot overall
Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014 06:00 am
Make it five consecutive Southern Division regular season titles in Big Rock Country.
The Okotoks Jr. B Bisons proved the doubters wrong in clinching the top-seed in the South after outlasting the playoff-hungry Cochrane Generals 8-5 on Sunday at Murray Arena.
“I don’t think we were given as much credit going into the season with the hangover from last year so it’s a great feeling to accomplish what we have so far,” said sophomore centre Zak Johns. “Within the locker room we knew we had the guys to do it. It’s taken a while for us all to click together as a group, but we all have that trust within each other.
“Regardless of what people say or think, as a team we still have that confidence that we’re going to take it is far as we possibly can.”
Okotoks’ drive for five straight South banners didn’t come without a few bumps in the road on Sunday versus a Generals team fighting for its playoff lives.
Luke Loomer’s first period tally got the Bisons off on the right foot and the hosts appeared to be on easy street early in the middle frame on a breakaway goal from Phil Dillon and powerplay marker from Johns.
Dangerous Cochrane sniper Andrew Bergmann cut the lead to 3-1, when he picked off a clearing attempt and beat Bisons goalie Brayden Engel on a smooth backhand deke. Austin Keller sliced the lead in half with a howitzer from the blueline answered on the next shift by Okotoks through Kristian Ayoungman. Matt Howatt would add a late period marker to make it a 5-2 game at the second intermission.
The Generals came out playing desperate hockey in the final frame and just 35 seconds into the period Patrick Bell kept their hopes alive with a powerplay goal. The teams then exchanged tallies through Bison Brooker Pretty Youngman and General Talus Hume. Cochrane made it interesting when Ian McRae was allowed to streak in alone and cut the lead to one with more than half the period to play, as close as the visitors would get.
Ayoungman and Loomer added insurance marker in the final 90 seconds to put the game to bed and sew up yet another division crown.
“We took our foot off the gas a little bit,” Engel said. “We stuck it to them early then had a couple mental lapses that cost us, but we still came up with the two points.”
Engel has thrived since being thrust into starter’s duty with veteran netminder Alex Bilton sidelined with a lower-body for the past month.
“He’s been the starter for most of the year and I’ve kind of embraced the back-up role, but I took this as my chance to show the coaches and the boys in the room that I belong here,” said Engel, an 11-game winner in this his rookie season. “Coming in with the mentality that it was my time to shine.”
The team and the league took notice.
Engel, who posted two shutouts, three wins and a 1.93 goals-against-average in January, was named goaltender of the month.
“It’s kind of a big deal for me,” Engel said. “I honestly couldn’t have done it without the team. I got a couple shutouts, but those were 8-0 wins.”
A couple more wins to close the season could pay huge dividends for the herd.
Okotoks has a genuine shot at locking up first-overall in the Heritage Junior Hockey League this weekend as the Bisons (24-9-1) are one point up on the Blackfalds Wranglers with the Northern Division kingpins owning two games in hand.
The Bisons wrap up their home schedule on Friday versus the surging Medicine Hat Cubs before heading north to meet the Wranglers on Sunday in a season finale that could determine home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
“It’s top-two teams in their respective divisions going at it,” said Johns, fourth on the squad with 33 points. “It’s about pride and home-ice advantage if all things go in order and they make the finals, we make the finals. That game plays a lot into the end of the season if we both make it that far.
“There is a lot more on the line than just two points in that one.”
For more information go to okotoksbisons.com