The Airdrie Thunder was swept from the Heritage Junior B playoffs with a 6-3 loss to the Blackfalds Wranglers, March 14.
The loss ended the Thunder’s drive to the final for the first time since 2006. Head coach Mike Carlsen said Blackfalds’ potent attack was too much for his team to counter.
"They are a good team and I think they have the potential of winning the whole province," said Carlsen. "They are big, strong and their average age is closer to 20 where ours is closer to 18. It made a difference in the long run. They had that experience and they kicked it up a gear. We will get there, but were a bit young this year."
Heading into the series, the Thunder lost five of its forwards to injury. Carlsen said 10 days off helped his team heal but his game plan remained avoiding overconfidence, especially with the Thunder’s quick elimination of Mountainview and Cochrane in the opening two rounds. Thunder defenseman Cache Doolaege led team scoring in the series with one goal and four assists followed by Kevin Boutilier, who tallied two goals and two assists. Mark Pippard returned to the lineup and scored two goals and one assist. Ian McNulty and affiliate Andrew Bergman also had three points. Airdrie goaltenders Jeff Gardner and Evan Miller were tested in the series, both facing more than 40 shots. The pivotal moment proved to be the second contest where Airdrie fought back from a 3-1 deficit to retake the lead 4-3. In the dying minutes of the second period, the Thunder took two straight penalties and one early in the third in which Blackfalds countered on the power play to win the game 7-4. Carlsen said he didn’t agree with some penalty calls against his team during the series. "Taking penalties is something I am never happy about. Did I agree with a lot of the calls during this series? Probably not. The ref is going to see the game one way and we will see it another way," he said. "With the power play that Blackfalds had, you don’t want to take penalties. It was something we could not control. If we had been able to hold that 4-3 lead and build on it a little bit, the series would have been 1-1. Heading back 2-0 in their barn was tough. We put up a fight, but it was not enough." The Thunder will lose Jamal Hamoud, Kevin Boutilier, Josh Robertson and Evan Miller to age restrictions this off-season. Ian McNulty and Brandon Esposito will be gone as well, with both signing white cards with Junior A clubs. In the last couple of seasons, the biggest obstacle for the Thunder has been getting past the second round. Carlsen said his team exceeded expectations this season. "We were really young this year, but I think we are going to keep improving. We had nine guys that were 18 or younger and guys like Travis Wallan and Gardner were older but it was still their first year in the league," said Carlsen. "It has been a huge stumbling block the last couple of years getting past the second round. We are going to keep building on it for next year."