One week after clinching second in the Heritage Junior Hockey League (HJHL) Northern Division and earning a bye to the division semi-finals, the Airdrie Techmation Thunder now knows its opponent for the second round.
The Thunder will take on the Blackfalds Wranglers in a best-of-five series beginning Feb. 21 (after press time), pitting two evenly matched rivals in a race for the championship.
“We’ve definitely had some close games with them throughout the season,” said head coach Derek Stamp. “We’ve had success and played them well. We think we match up with them well if we play our game and execute the details we need to.”
The Thunder finished four-points clear of the third-seeded Wranglers in the regular season, but head-to-head the teams are more evenly matched.
Airdrie has just one more win than its northern opponent and, in its four regular season meetings, the Thunder earned two regulation wins over Blackfalds – knocking the Wranglers off 4-1 Sept. 22, 2017 and 5-1 Dec. 8, 2017, with both wins coming at home in Ron Ebbesen Arena.
Its first loss to Blackfalds occurred Oct. 22, 4-3 in overtime, and in the most recent matchup between the two teams, Feb. 6, the Thunder lost 7-3.
“That (Feb. 6 game) was at the tail-end of a period where we were not playing the kind of hockey we had hoped,” Stamp said. “We feel we have gotten back on track during games 35 and 36 of the season.
“Now that its playoffs, it’s a clean slate for both teams.”
With a 14-3-1 record on home ice, Stamp said it is important his team utilizes the advantage to put pressure on the Wranglers.
The Thunder boasts one of the highest offensive outputs, racking up 193 goals in the regular season – second in the HJHL only to the Red Deer Vipers (198).
In a foil to the Thunder, the Wranglers have played in much closer contests this year, carrying the second lowest goal differential among the six teams with 20 or more wins this season.
Stamp said he expects both teams will attempt to maneuver play to its style, with the series pitting a more high-octane offence against a team that prefers to keep games tight.
The 2017-18 campaign marks the fourth-straight season the Thunder has made the playoffs.
Despite consistently being a contender for the HJHL Championship, the Thunder has failed to gain much traction in the post-season, making it to the Northern Division Final once in the past three years and getting eliminated in the semi-finals by a lower seed team in the other two years.
Stamp added his team has been building to change its playoff success, or lack there of, all season and needs to see results in this series with the Wranglers.
“This team needs to realize the importance of playing a simple, structured game,” Stamp said.
“If we do that, which we have done throughout the season at varying points, then we can have success against the other top teams in this division.”
The Thunder returns to action Feb. 23, taking on the Wranglers for Game 2 at Ron Ebbesen Arena. Game time is scheduled for 8 p.m.