The wait is over for Crusade to continue

The Sherwood Park Crusaders begin their second-round series against the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, with games Friday and Saturday night at the Arena. Photo courtesy Target Photography

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The dress rehearsals are over.

Now it is on with the show, this is it.

After collecting the most wins in a season in franchise history by going 44-14-2 — and in their 40th anniversary year in Sherwood Park to boot — and capturing first place in the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s North Division and the accompanying opening round bye that comes with it for the first time since 2002-2003, the Sherwood Park Crusades are now ready and eager to prove that they can carry that positive momentum into the post-season.

They finally know who to get geared up against as they will now face the Fort McMurray Oil Barons in a best-of-seven second round series beginning at home this weekend, this coming after the Oil Barons defeated Grande Prairie in the first round while the Crusaders cooled their heels, properly nursed their aches and pains, and got in nine practices over the last couple weeks in preparation.

“The break was fantastic for us,” said Crusaders head coach Adam Manah. “We enjoyed the time off and luckily we have been healthy throughout, but it was good to give the guys some more extra time to deal with those nicks and bruises and truly get 100 per cent healthy. Our work ethic and intensity at practice has been really good, even last week when it could have maybe faltered a little bit. Our leadership group has done a terrific job making sure the guys know how important it is that we stay sharp and that we work extremely hard at practice every day. Now it is just about wrapping it up and getting ourselves ready for Friday.”

The Crusaders took four out of six regular season games against Fort McMurray. Photo courtesy Target Photography

But practices can only partially fill the void of actual action and the Crusaders are chomping at the bit to pit themselves against an actual opponent again.

“Everybody is pretty ramped up and ready to go,” Manah said. “Even us as a coaching staff, we want to see the guys hit the ice and get going. It is exciting. We haven’t been in this position as an organization in a very long time. It has been a long time since we have had the bye in the first round and been sitting in this spot. We are pretty excited to hit the ground running against a good team in Fort Mac.”

Manah envisions a very competitive series with the Oil Barons, a team that they had a measure of success against during the regular season campaign.

“We don’t expect too much to change from what we saw when we played them in the second last game of the year (a 3-2 win for the Cru in overtime),” Manah said. “They work extremely hard and they are a good team that is heavy. They are going to play with an edge and a chip on their shoulder for the entire series. We know that they pride themselves in that work ethic, compete type of game. They have a good back end and some guys up front who can bury you and they have good goaltending. All-in-all, they have a well-rounded hockey team. When you get to round two and round three, the opponents just get tougher and tougher. We know it is going to be a tall order, but we know we are up to the task. It should be an exciting one for sure.

“We went 4-2 against them, winning two there and two at home.”

Oilers defenceman wishes his brother luck

The Crusaders will have at least one pretty fervent fan in the Edmonton Oilers dressing room.

Oilers defenceman Matt Benning, whose younger brother Michael Benning had an extremely impressive rookie season on defence for the Crusaders, will be watching the second round series with close interest.

“It is pretty exciting times for the Bennings right now,” Matt said. “My sister is with the U of A and they are in nationals and my brother Mike, he and the Crusaders have been waiting for their series to start. I know he is excited and I will hopefully be able to sneak out to as many games as I can.”

The first two games of the second round series against Fort McMurray take place on Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 7 p.m., both games at the Sherwood Park Arena. Advance admission can be purchased at tickets.sherwoodparkcrusaders.ca.

Games 3 and 4 will shift north to Fort Mac on Monday and Tuesday.

Should Game 5 prove necessary, it will be back in Sherwood Park on Friday, March 22.

sjones@postmedia.com

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