With just four games left in the 2019-20 regular season, the Airdrie Techmation Thunder has entered playoff mode, as the junior B hockey team gets set to defend its Heritage Junior Hockey League (HJHL) championship.
But the Thunder’s most recent outing ended in disappointment Jan. 24, as the side dropped a point, courtesy of a 7-6 overtime loss to the Mountainview Colts at the Ron Ebbesen Arena.
“It was ugly,” head coach Derek Stamp said. “We can’t really expect a different result when we play that way. Mentally, there were a few guys with their heads in the clouds, and we just didn’t execute. [Mountainview] outworked us for the better part of the game, plain and simple.”
A win would have clinched first place in the North Division (25-6-2), which boasted a then-10-point lead over the second-place Red Deer Vipers. As it stands Jan. 28, Airdrie is one win away from solidifying the top spot, which would give the team a bye in the first round of playoffs.
Mountainview – Airdrie’s opponent in the division finals last year – put up a physical fight to delay the Thunder’s berth in the second round of the playoffs. The Colts answered a 2-0 deficit in the first period with four goals in the second and came out with an energetic performance in overtime to seal the win.
“We played probably 12 minutes of actual, structured hockey,” Stamp said. “The rest of the game, we just seemed to run around and not execute the way we needed to.”
Two Thunder players who could hold their heads high after the game were 21-year-old defenseman Jason Wenzel and 18-year-old forward Nathan Fox, who each scored twice in the OT defeat.
Wenzel, who recently returned to the team after spending a semester at a university in Montana, potted two goals in the second period to help turn the tide back in Airdrie’s favour
“To have Wenzel back shows,” Stamp said. “He always gives you that element of being a game-breaker. But what we need is for the other guys to pick it up and play a little more structured defence behind him.”
Fox, a junior rookie who has averaged more than a point-per-game in 24 HJHL outings, scored a nifty solo goal in the first period, stickhandling the puck past two Colts players before sliding it past goaltender Ethan Woodward. The unassisted effort came while the Thunder was on the penalty kill.
He later scored the game-tying goal in the third period to force overtime.
“He gives us that element on offence,” Stamp said. “His speed is probably tops in this league – he can play with our top guys and he can play up and down the lineup.”
Fox joined the team earlier this season, after spending the first part of the campaign with the midget AAA Okotoks Oilers.
His introduction to the junior game has been positive, as he has also enjoyed three call-ups to the Alberta Junior Hockey League with the Grande Prairie Storm and the Drumheller Dragons, according to his Elite Prospects profile.
“He just keeps getting better and better,” Stamp said. “He was in the HJHL Prospects Game and we thought he was one of the better players out there.
“We’re really happy with his growth and development.”
Airdrie’s other goals came from Kyle Bracko and Caleb Reed.
Stamp said the team’s final four games will be about eradicating the mental mistakes evident against Mountainview.
“We want to clean all that sort of stuff up,” he said. “Tonight, pucks were bouncing funny and some guys had their heads in the clouds who don’t usually have their heads in the clouds. It was a weird night – a little off, for a number of guys.
“Down the stretch, the last couple of games we play will be against North Division teams, with the exception being Cochrane. We play [Mountainview] again, and there’s a possibility of us being in a playoff round with them.”
The Thunder’s next home game will be Jan. 31 against the Stettler Lightning. Puck drop is at 8 p.m. at the Ron Ebbesen Arena.