All photo credits: Xander Holcomb, Blackfalds Bulldogs, Scott Stimson, Blackfalds Bulldogs, and/or Madison Fox, Renegades Photography
Article: Aidan Serra
All roads out of the South Division for any team wanting a shot at this year’s AJHL Championship had to go through the Brooks Bandits. Brooks’ 53-5-2 regular season stat line gave them the best record in the entire AJHL and gave the Bandits their second consecutive season with over 50 wins. Blackfalds went 39-18-3 in the regular season, finishing second in the south to the Bandits. The Bulldogs’ 81 points over the 2022-23 regular season gave them a 24-point increase over their inaugural season.
Regular season: Blackfalds earns 2-3-1 record over Brooks
In Blackfalds’ inaugural season, the Brooks Bandits had their number, winning each of their six meetings in regulation, outscoring Blackfalds 49-9 in those six games. It did not take long at the start of the 2022-23 season for it to become apparent that the new season had not only brought a different Bulldogs team, but a different dynamic to the Bulldogs versus Bandits matchup. On September 24, Blackfalds played host to Brooks in their second home game of the season, looking to pick up their first win at the Eagle Builders Centre since the conclusion of the previous regular season campaign. In the effort to that end, Blackfalds started strong, with Tyler Wallace scoring the second of his eventual 42 regular season goals on the powerplay early. Blackfalds never gave up the lead, eventually scoring six on Ethan Barwick, including star rookie Connor Dick’s first career goal. Blackfalds’ Charlie Zolin shone brightly in his first game on home ice, making 32 saves on 35 shots to earn the win.
The two teams had nearly two months between meetings, as the next time Blackfalds and Brooks played was November 19, their first game at the Centennial Regional Arena in Brooks this season. In contrast to the two teams’ first game, Brooks took the early lead and did not relinquish it. Five goals in the first half of the game from five different Bandits goal scorers opened up a big Brooks lead, with Layne Loomer and Brendan Ross goals making the game closer prior to Aiden Fink closing out the 6-2 win with his second of the night. Brooks would host Blackfalds just one week later, and Brooks’ strong start carried them to victory again. A goal 16 seconds in from Tyler Blocha set Brooks on their way, with Brendan Poshak scoring minutes later to give the Bandits a 2-0 lead that Blackfalds would not be able to recover from. Matthew Hennessey came into the game in relief, making 27 saves on 28 shots to keep the Bulldogs in it, but it would again be Fink with the dagger, scoring the last of Brooks’ three goals in the shutout victory.
The two teams’ fourth meeting and their last of the 2022 calendar year came on December 13, with both teams missing significant contributors due to the dates conflicting with the World Junior “A” challenge happening at the same time. With Blackfalds missing Tanner Willick to team Canada, newly acquired David Brandes stepped into an elevated role, and thrived. After Heath Armstrong and Jason Siedem traded early first-period goals, Brandes broke into the Brooks zone and gave Blackfalds a 2-1 lead with a smart move to the backhand. Another player stepping up in an elevated role, Hughie Hooker scored in the second period on the powerplay to tie things up for Brooks. After trading numerous grade-A scoring chances at the end of the third period and in overtime, including Matthew Hennessey saving a Jordan Hughesman penalty shot, the game still didn’t have a winner. Nothing was solved through 65 minutes, leading Nathan Free to settle the game with the only goal of the shootout.
Coming off three straight wins in their head-to-head series, Brooks hosted Blackfalds on January 20, looking to clinch the win in the season series on home ice. Brooks started strong, with newly-acquired Davide Patella opening the scoring, but quick responses from Otto Hanson and David Brandes turned the tide and gave the Bulldogs the lead. Heath Armstrong scored his second goal in as many head-to-head meetings between the two teams to tie things up at two going into the first intermission. Blackfalds heated up in the second period, with a pair of goals from Kurt Gurkan leading the Bulldogs to a 6-2 lead through 40 minutes. Brooks would score once in the third, bringing the game back to 6-3, but couldn’t come any closer than that, giving the Bulldogs their second win and their fifth point in the season series.
Blackfalds had the opportunity to win the season series during the two teams’ sixth and final meeting on February 11. The night was a special one for Blackfalds, not just because of the potentially momentous game, but because it was the first time in franchise history that the Eagle Builders Centre was sold out, as well as setting an attendance record (at the time) with over 1230 fans packing the home of the Bulldogs. Blackfalds started the game well, controlling the bulk of the first-period play and taking a two-goal lead into the break thanks to a pair of powerplay goals from captain Brett Meerman, the latter of which came with less than a second left in the period. In the middle 20, Brooks did an excellent job to fight back, taking a slight edge in shots through two periods, and managing to cut the Bulldogs’ lead down to one going into the third, with Aiden Fink and Mikhail Simchuk’s goals matched only by one from Jason Siedem. Fink would score once more in the third, and that coupled with Elliot Dutil’s pair gave the Bandits a 5-3 victory. Brooks took the season series, winning four of six meetings, but Blackfalds had nothing to hang their heads about, finishing the season as the only team to earn multiple victories against the AJHL’s top regular season team.
Round one: Blackfalds 4, Calgary 1
Whilst the current AJHL playoff format dictates that the first-placed team earns a bye beyond round one, the same can not be said for the conference runner-up, meaning the Blackfalds Bulldogs booked a date with the seventh-seeded team in the South, the Calgary Canucks. Blackfalds’ regular-season record was not perfect but did allude to the Bulldogs being the heavy favourites, winning five of the two teams’ six regular-season meetings.
Despite all that, Calgary looked the better team for the first seven minutes of the series, with the Canucks coming out of the gates hot and scoring two powerplay goals bright and early, through Justin Barker and Daniel Rozsival. For the Bulldogs, that was a wake-up call of sorts, earning the next five goals unanswered from five different goal scorers, including the first career playoff goals of three players. Every series has that very weird game, that anomaly that breaks trends and, in retrospect, stands out as the odd one of the bunch. In this series, that was game two, with four goals from Tyler Wallace leading the way in a 10-6 Blackfalds win. Taking a 2-0 series lead to Calgary, and having dominated the bulk of the series thus far, Blackfalds could, at that point, feel that a sweep was far from out of the realm of possibility. The efforts to that end started well in game three, with Blackfalds’ 4-0 lead just barely past the halfway point of the game too much for the Canucks to overcome, with a pair from Rozsival not enough to make game three anything closer than a 6-2 Bulldogs win.
Calgary turned on desperation mode in game four, putting in their best sixty-minute effort of the series. Zephyr LaPlante and Justin Barker’s goals gave Calgary a 2-1 lead going into the final stages of the third period, but a Brett Meerman equalizer with 17 seconds to go sent the game into OT. Overtime, however, would not last long, with Canucks defenseman Connor Frost scoring 109 seconds in to win Calgary their first game of the series. Back home for game five, Blackfalds would not relinquish the opportunity to see off Calgary, with a pair of second-period goals from Tyler Wallace helping the Bulldogs to a 4-1 victory in the game and the series.
Round two: Brooks 4, Okotoks 2
For the first time since 2016, the South division final was not Brooks versus Okotoks, but that did not mean the two teams avoided each other, squaring off in the second round rather than the third. A 108-point regular season for the Brooks Bandits gave them a 27-point lead over second place in the South division, meaning their first-round bye was guaranteed long before the start of March. Brooks also knew the fourth-placed Okotoks Oilers awaited them in the second round, provided each higher-seeded team won in the first round. For the Oilers, a second-round series against the Bandits was far from inevitable, with the Oilers squandering what looked at the start of February to be a strong chance to finish second in the south. After the Bulldogs put some distance between themselves and Okotoks, the Oilers’ last four regular season games spelled disaster for the team, as their back-to-back losses to Drumheller in the last two games sent the Dragons into the South Division’s third-place spot. Okotoks, however, treated the start of the playoffs as a new day, shedding the slump that plagued them down the stretch and making quick work of the Camrose Kodiaks in the first round, completing the only four-game sweep in the South Division bracket. Despite the strong start to the playoffs, Okotoks had to be wary of their second-round opponent, as the Oilers failed to earn a single point in their six meetings with Brooks during the regular season, including losing both of a crucial back-to-back at the end of February.
The Oilers, however, looked primed to get something out of game one through 40 minutes, with Sam Huck and Ty Yoder each scoring in the final minutes of the first and second periods respectively to help Okotoks to a 2-1 lead through two periods. Okotoks, however, could not add to their lead in the third period, and after missing chances including two powerplay opportunities, they allowed the Bandits back into the game. Hudson Malinoski and Caelan Fitzpatrick would score, with Fitzpatrick’s eventual game-winner coming with under four minutes to play in the third. In game two, Okotoks would again take a 2-1 lead into the third period, but this time would find the dagger themselves to put the game beyond Brooks. Ty Yoder’s goal with six minutes on the clock in the third made it 3-1, with Brooks only able to score once to get back into the game, as Mikhail Simchuk’s goal would end up being in vain as the Oilers took game two to tie the series.
Getting an impressive split in Brooks, Okotoks came home knowing a pair of wins would push Brooks to the brink, whilst the Bandits knew they could reacquire the home-ice advantage they’d lost with a split of their own. The Bandits did, indeed, earn the victory on the road they needed in game three, with Brendan Poshak’s three assists leading the way in a 5-2 win. All of a sudden, the Oilers were back into a game that had the feel of a must-win, and they played like it in the first period of game four. Three goals in just over six minutes from Zeth Kindrachuk, Sam Huck, and Ty Yoder at the end of the first period gave the Oilers a cushion through 20, and Heath Armstrong’s third-period goal was all Brooks could muster in response, and strong defensive play helped Okotoks over the line to tie the series 2-2. At home for game five with the chance to push the Oilers to the brink, Brooks wasted no time putting the game beyond Okotoks thanks to four first-period goals from four different goal scorers. Third-period goals from Dean Spak and Brett Huxley were not enough to fight back, with Brooks taking a 4-2 win out of game five to make a 3-2 series lead.
The Oilers played game six on home ice, looking to send the series back to Brooks for game seven, but the Bandits prevailed, taking a 3-0 lead through forty minutes, with Caelan Fitzpatrick, Brendan Poshak and Aiden Fink scoring big goals. Kade Turner got one back in the third, but the Oilers could not get any closer than that, and Brooks closed out the series in six. The two wins in the series for Okotoks were two more than they earned in their third-round series against Brooks in the third-round series they played in 2022-23, but still came up short this year. Brooks advances to the south final again, now appearing in every single third-round since 2011.
Round two: Blackfalds 4, Drumheller 3
The Blackfalds Bulldogs and Drumheller Dragons’ regular season series finished up about as even as it could have, with both teams earning 3-2-1 records against the other, winning once by blowout, once by a three-goal margin, and once after the game was tied through sixty minutes. Blackfalds’ home-ice advantage in the second round no doubt had the potential to make the difference, with the home team proving victorious in each of the six meetings during the regular season. That trend, however, was snapped in game one, with the Drumheller Dragons’ offensive explosion proving too much for the Bulldogs to handle. Two early powerplay goals for the Dragons gave them a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, eventually taking a 7-3 lead thanks to an early third-period goal from Ethan Casper. Tyler Wallace and Brendan Ross would earn goals to bring the Bulldogs back in the game, but Dylan Glinski put the game away into the empty net to seal an 8-5 game-one win for Drumheller.
To start game two, the Bulldogs were able to do what they didn’t do at all in the first game, with Otto Hanson striking to give the Bulldogs their first lead of the series. After Vann Yuhas scored the only goal of the second period to knot the game up at one through 40, the third period was a wild ride, with Drumheller twice taking the lead through Adam Raesler and Jacob Goudreau, but Blackfalds twice finding equalizing goals to tie the game back up, through Brett Meerman and Connor Dick. A Will Christian hooking penalty in overtime put the Bulldogs on the powerplay, and Tanner Willick’s wrist shot from the top of the faceoff circle beat Garrett Fuller to tie the series up at one.
Games three and four in Drumheller finished strikingly similar to one another, with Blackfalds able to fight hard enough to make it a one-goal game late in the third period. In both instances, however, Drumheller was able to score the empty net goal to seal things, winning both contests by 5-3 scorelines. Drumheller’s 3-1 series lead meant Blackfalds had no room for error for the rest of their second-round series and absences to Jayden Joly, Layne Loomer, and Connor Dick meant the Bulldogs’ task became a whole lot harder in the absence of three of their more productive forwards, but you wouldn’t know it in game five. Brendan Ross and Ty Whitford traded first-period goals before Blackfalds exploded offensively, scoring five in the second on their way to a big 8-2 win, led by two goals each from Ross, Jack Plandowski, and Kody Willick.
Game six was always going to be the tallest task, as to date, Blackfalds had failed to win in their five previous trips to Drumheller between the regular season and the playoffs. The first period brought on hope, as goals from Brendan Ross and Otto Hanson gave the Bulldogs a 2-0 lead, but Sam Simard and Vann Yuhas were able to tie going into the second intermission. Starting the third period at four-on-four, Blackfalds were able to take advantage of the extra space, scoring early through captain Brett Meerman. It took Blackfalds just two minutes to strike again, with this time Jack Plandowski able to force a snapshot through Garrett Fuller on the odd man rush to make it a 4-2 game. Ty Whitford got one back short hereafter, but Drumheller couldn’t find a tying goal late and ended up falling short by a 4-3 scoreline.
Tuesday night in Blackfalds marked the first game seven in the history of either the Blackfalds Bulldogs or the Drumheller Dragons, giving Blackfalds the opportunity to fully comeback from the 3-1 deficit, and Drumheller the chance to reach their first South Division final since 2014. A great individual effort from Jason Siedem gave Blackfalds an early lead, dancing his way through the two Dragons defencemen and scoring to make it 1-0. After a Connor Poffenroth goal tied things up, a goal each from the Willick twins gave Blackfalds a two-goal advantage through 40 minutes. An early Siedem powerplay goal and a late Siedem empty-netter rendered Drumhheller’s comeback efforts obsolete, as Blackfalds advanced to the third round with a 5-2 game seven victory.
Whilst the Bandits might be betting favourites, multiple regular season wins for Blackfalds over Brooks has to have led to a shred of doubt in the back of the heads of the Bandits. Games one and two are Friday and Saturday in Brooks, while Blackfalds will host games three and four Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the Eagle Builders Centre.