If the Alberta senior AAA hockey final goes seven games, no one will be surprised, least of all the head coaches of the Bentley Generals and Innisfail Eagles.
“It was a pretty even regular-season series between the two teams,” Generals bench boss Ryan Tobler said Thursday. “We’re expecting a war. It’s going to be some good hockey and I would encourage people to come and check it out.”
The best-of-seven provincial championship opens Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Red Deer Arena and could extend to a seventh and deciding game, scheduled for March 27 at the same site.
The clubs, after all, were pretty much on the same page during the Chinook Hockey League season, with the Generals prevailing in four of the six meetings with just two games decided by more than one goal.
Tobler, who replaced Brandin Cote as the Gens head coach during the off-season, isn’t surprised that the Eagles have evolved into a national senior AAA contender from a team that just two years ago — while playing as a AA squad — posted one CHL victory.
After all, Brian Sutter is now in charge of the Innisfail squad after being relieved of his head coaching post with the Generals during the summer of 2012. The former NHL coach of the year experienced a plethora of success with Bentley and is now excelling as the Eagles head mentor.
“With Brian going there it gave that franchise some credibility and some experience behind the bench,” said Tobler. “He had some Generals players follow him to Innisfail and that in itself has definitely created this rivalry.
“But it’s a good one. They’ve done a great job over there and we’re looking forward to playing them. We know they’re going to be ready.”
The clubs know each other well, due to the number of former Generals on the Eagles roster and the fact they’ve hooked up on a half dozen occasions this season.
“This series is going to come down to who wants it more and who works the hardest,” said Tobler.
“It’s going to be one of those series you’re just happy to be a part of. It’s going to be fun and intense. We look forward to the challenge and I’m sure they do too.”
While the Generals know the series will likely be tight, they aren’t lacking in confidence as the reigning Allan Cup champions.
“We play with confidence the best we can,” said Tobler. “We do it the right way, we’re not cocky. We’ve talked about what’s ahead and we know nothing is going to come easy.”
Sutter insisted his team isn’t short on confidence heading into the provincial final series, the winner of which will advance to the MacKenzie Cup — the Alberta/B.C. championship — against the Powell River Regals.
“We know what we have to do,” said Sutter. “The last five games we’ve played against them have been very close.
“As the season went along we just kept getting better as a group. We’ve added some young players and we have a good group of people. We’re looking forward to this series.”
The Eagles haven’t looked back since winning the Alberta AA championship last spring, and in fact have upgraded their roster in impressive fashion.
“We’ve added a good mix of players,” said Sutter. “We’ve worked hard to get a solid and younger group that includes guys like Chad Ziegler, Wyatt Hamilton, Shawn Bates and Mike Sullivan. These guys are all top-notch players.”
Innisfail also has an affiliate list that includes former Generals part-timers Kurt and Chance Bensmiller.
“Our affiliate list is made up of a solid group of people and they all want to be here,” said Sutter, who didn’t discount the possibility of the Bensmiller brothers being in the Eagles’ lineup Saturday.