The high-flying Airdrie Xtreme are two wins away from a berth in the U15 AAA boys' hockey provincial tournament, after their post-season sweep over the Calgary Royals last week.
Captain Riley Boychuk, a second-year forward with the Xtreme and the team's leading scorer with 80 regular-season points this season, said the players are trying to keep their feet on the ground as they prepare for their next opponent – the Red Deer Rebels. Game one of the best-of-three series takes place this afternoon at the Ron Ebbesen Arena, with puck-drop slated for 5:45 p.m.
“We played [the Rebels] six or five times this year and they’re a tough opponent that creates a lot of offence,” Boychuk said. “We need to be ready for that, because they’ve been playing really good hockey. It should be a really good battle. We need to stick to our game and should be fine.”
The Xtreme have been the pacesetters of the AEHL this season, producing a 33-1 regular-season record that put them far ahead of their nearest competitors in the south division. They followed up from that with their two-game sweep of the Royals, beating the Calgary squad 3-0 and 5-0.
But as Boychuk would remind you, anything can happen during the playoffs, meaning Airdrie will have to continue playing at the top of their game if they hope to achieve their provincial championship-winning goals this season.
“Obviously, the playoffs are what you look forward to the whole year," he said. "It’s where the teams show how good they are. [Beating the Royals] was a good jump for us and showed we’re ready to play. We’re ready to play and ready to compete. We’re not backing down from anybody.”
For however many games they have left this campaign, the Xtreme will clearly have a target on their backs, having solidified their reputation as the strongest team in the AEHL.
But according to Boychuk, having such reputation can ironically make for a difficult situation, as every opponent the Xtreme face arrives with a point to prove, and little to lose.
"I bet some teams might be a little scared to play against us, but other times, they can just give it their all because they have nothing to lose," he said. "A lot of times, we bring the best out of teams and we have to battle hard to play our game and compete more than they do.
"No matter who we’re playing, we have to stick to our game. We can’t look at our standings compared to theirs.”
Last year's Xtreme squad was equally dominant during the AEHL regular season, and got off to a great start in the 2022 playoffs. But the team faltered in the provincial tournament, ultimately only finishing in fourth place.
Boychuk, who was a first-year member of the Xtreme in 2021-22, remembers last season's disappointment well. He said he and his fellow second-year teammates will use that sour memory as motivation this time around.
"We went into provincials with high expectations and we did fall short of that," he said. "We put our position in another team’s hands, and that didn’t work out for us.
"The players who are returning, we know that feeling. We second-years have to learn from that. We can’t put [our fate] in anyone else’s hands to make it through. We can’t take a game off, because in that playoff structure, it’s the top two teams [after four games] who go through to the finals."
But before they can start thinking about the provincial tournament, the Xtreme will first have to overcome Red Deer. And even though Airdrie beat the Rebels every time they faced them during the regular season, Boychuk emphasized you can't under-estimate any opponent during the playoffs.
“Especially in this league, all the teams are really good," he said. "Any team can surprise you, so you can’t take a night off."