The fun and games are over; it’s time to get down to business.
The Foothills CFR Chemicals Bisons brushed back the Moose Jaw Generals 7-4 Dec. 30 at Max Bell Centre #1, ending their round robin schedule.
The Bisons wound up winning Pool 5, going undefeated in the process and were forced to wait until the rest of the round robin games played out to discover their quarterfinal opponent.
“It feels fantastic to come away with the win. It was a mean nothing game standings wise for us, but still to come through and win, it helps out our pride and confidence coming into tomorrow,” said Bisons assistant coach Mike Langen.
“It was a little bit looser of a game for us. I know our guys realize we can’t be as relaxed moving forward or teams will take it to us. They probably thought it was nice that the tyrant wasn’t barking at them all game,” said Bisons head coach Sandy Henry.
Winger Zach Huber got off to a great start in his first Mac’s AAA Midget Hockey Tournament, scoring a goal in each of the three games. Against the Generals, he cranked his play up to 11 with a hat trick.
The Bisons top line of Peyton Krebs, Jackson Salt and Huber are seemingly unstoppable right now.
Striking first, Krebs spotted Huber across the offensive zone with a seeing-eye pass. Huber blasted home the powerplay marker 9:51 into the first.
“He was busting the puck today. Wow, can he shoot the puck. Those openings were there today and he was teeing off,” said Henry.
Huber found the back of the net again, on what appeared to be the Bisons best offensive shift of the tournament.
On the powerplay, Salt and Krebs were telekinetic, working together on several no-look backhand passes, cycling the puck, looking for an opening. In the clear was Huber — a man on a mission.
Krebs circled along the right half wall, avoiding danger. Finding freedom, he spotted Huber on the opposite faceoff dot. He floated a saucer pass that hung in the air like the moon, flying over a pair of sticks, landing perfectly on Huber’s tape and in his wheelhouse. Much like Huber’s first tally, he let another one-timer rip from point blank.
“Our line is really clicking. It easy playing with talented guys like Krebsie and Salty,” said Huber. “We knew we were buzzing, chance after chance, it was eventually gonna go in. Krebs made one hell of a pass across the seam and I was lucky enough it went in.”
To complete the hat trick, Huber didn’t need a gift wrapped pass, his pressing forecheck turned the puck over right in front of the net, as he launched his third clapper of the game, finishing the hat trick and eventually earning player of the game.
Huber has elevated his game to a different level this tournament. When Langen was asked what he was feeding Huber to turn him into a goal-scoring monster, “Bananas, and a lot of them.”
Huber responded, laughing, “Eggs, actually. Now that I’m back home, I don’t cook them in the morning, but normally I like a big omelet and some sort of smoothie. I’m definitely going to keep it the same for tomorrow.”
The Bisons entered the game already knowing their fate. The nail-biting win over the Greater Vancouver Canadians sealed the Pool 5 title.
The Generals were no slouch despite their 1-2 record entering the game. The Generals have sat atop the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League for much of the season, but were recently dethroned by the Regina Pat Canadians.
The Generals were no push over, responding several times following Bisons goals.
The Bisons jumped in front 2-0 when Landon Melzer recorded his first goal of the tourney.
Not typically a defenseman who joins the rush, Melzer was pumped to put one in from behind the net.
Taking the puck down low, he searched for an opening, and he found one — off of Generals goaltender Matt Lenz’s back.
“I saw Jack Eichel score from behind the net the other day and it made he think about that when I was in the same position,’ said Melzer.
He chipped the puck from behind the net, playing the Pythagorean angles and giving his Bisons some cushion.
Not going away, the Generals quickly tied it, as Hunter Young allowed a pair of goals in his second start of the tournament. Young stopped 26 shots in total.
The Bisons retook the lead for good, when Boaz Bassen scored the winner and his second of the tournament, finishing off a pretty passing play from Tyson Scott and Kaden Hanas.
Missing in action was Blake Wells. Wells took a hit during the Canadians game and was held out of the lineup against the Generals. Filling in, was centreman Tucker Zdunich.
Zdunich narrowly missed making the Bisons and was one of the final cuts back in the fall. Playing for the Foothills Bisons in the South Central Alberta Hockey League, he has been called up for three regular season games with the Herd and has attended several practices.
“There were some butterflies today with family watching. I was very excited to get a chance to play in this huge tournament,” said Zdunich. “Going forward, I need to focus up, bring my ‘A’ game and help these boys and take this tournament home.”
With no timetable for Wells’ return, Zdunich might find himself in the lineup more frequently.
“Tucker brings good energy to the lineup, he’s not gonna shy away from tough areas. Things happen a little quicker than what he’s used to, and the more playing time will help as his brain adjusts. We trust Tucker in there,” said Henry.
When Cole Clayton carries the puck through the neutral zone, if he doesn’t see any openings, he has no problem taking the puck down low to let the play develop. Carrying the puck deep once again, Clayton found Krebs crashing through the middle of the zone. Clayton’s feed was immediately banged home, putting the Herd up 4-2.
Joel Krahenbil has been trying all tournament to set up his teammates with one of his drop passes. It hasn’t worked yet, but he was able to get in on the five-goal second stanza when he buried his first of the tourney after a couple whacks in the goal crease just before the horn sounded.
The Generals pushed back in the third, just like they did to open the second with a pair of quick goals, trimming the Bisons lead to 6-4.
The Bisons were able to coast to victory in the remaining minutes after Salt was tripped on a breakaway with 3:02 remaining.
Hours after the Bisons packed up their gear, hockey tape and chocolate milk, the final games of the tournament wrapped up, determining the fate for the wildcard teams.
The Saskatoon Contacts edged out the Calgary Royals 4-2 in the final game of the tourney. An important one, as the Contacts captured Pool 3, sending the Royals to the wildcard for a meeting with the Bisons.
The Royals are one of three Alberta Midget Hockey League teams advancing, setting up a rematch of when the two teams skated to a 3-3 tie back on Dec. 9 in Strathmore.
“It’s tourneys like this that set you up for Telus Cup. You deal with so many different teams in such short time. We just need to stick to our game plan and do what we do best to give us a chance to succeed, along with making small adjustments as the game goes on,” said Langen.
The Royals attacked the Bisons in Strathmore, skating stride for stride with the Herd. The Royals led 3-2 until captain Brett Trentham tied it with 5:47 remaining in the third.
Gone are the defending champions. The Calgary Flames finished 1-2-1, meaning there will be a new champion.
Of the eight teams moving on, six franchises have previously hoisted the Mac’s Cup. Only the Prince Albert Mintos and Belarus U17 National team have yet to captured the trophy.
The Bisons faceoff against their Chrysler division rivals New Years Eve, 12 p.m. at Father David Bauer Arena. The winner advances to the semifinal later that evening at Max Bell Centre #1.
“The boys are pretty excited. We know we have a lot of work ahead of us, but we’re excited to keep moving on,” said Melzer.