Central Alberta senior AAA hockey fans would like nothing more than to see the Bentley Generals and Innisfail Eagles hook up in the Alberta final.
But first things first. The two teams will have their hands full in the best-of-seven semifinals.
The defending Allan Cup champion Generals meet the Stony Plain Eagles and defending provincial senior AA champion Innisfail takes on the Fort Saskatchewan Chiefs.
Both series open Friday at 8:30 p.m. in Innisfail and Bentley.
“I expect it to be a close, hard-fought series,” said Generals general manager Jeff McInnis. “We had a 21-3 record this season, but almost every one of our wins were hard-fought and our losses were close, except for one.”
The only bad loss was a 7-1 setback against Fort Saskatchewan. Their other two losses were one-goal decisions against Innisfail.
“If you look at all the results it just shows the strength of our league,” he added. “The last few years we’ve lost some teams (Carstairs, Sylvan Lake and Lloydminster) and every time those players need a place to go, which makes everyone that much stronger.”
The Generals swept the six games against Stony Plain, including 3-1 and 6-3 win to end the season. Still McInnis isn’t taking anything for granted.
“Stony had a better second half to the season and the last two years they came up big in the first round of the playoffs, so we can’t be overlooking them.”
Chris Neiszner led the Generals in scoring this season with 12 goals and 25 points in 23 games. Connor Shields had a team high 14 goals to go with 11 assists while two others — Kyle Sheen (9g,15a) and Randall Gelech (1g,22a) — averaged a point a game.
Brendan Baumgartner led Stony Plain with 11 goals and 16 assists in 22 starts.
Travis Yonkman led the Generals in goal with a 2.05 goals-against-average and a .920 save percentage and is backed up by James Reid.
The second game of the series goes Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Stony Plain with the third game Monday at 2 p.m. at the Red Deer Arena.
“It’s the sixth year we’ve had a Family Day game at the Arena,” said McInnis. “It’s something we look forward as it’s an opportunity for a lot of fans to see us who normally don’t get a chance to. As well the guys enjoy playing there.”
It will also bring back some fond memories for the majority of the Generals, who won the Allan Cup at the Arena last season.
The fourth game of the series goes Feb. 22 in Stony Plain with the fifth, if necessary, Feb. 23 at 2 p.m. in Bentley. The sixth game is scheduled for March 1 in Stony Plain and Game 7 March 2 at 2 p.m. in Bentley.
The Innisfail Eagles won four of the six meetings with the Chiefs this season, including the last three. Their biggest win was a 1-0 decision in their final regular season game which gave them second place in the league and home-ice advantage.
“That’s big,” said Eagles president Randy Graham. “We know we can’t take them for granted and home ice will be an advantage. We fought hard all season to get it and hopefully it pays off.”
Still that means winning their opener.
“For sure, but it’s the provincials and every game is big.”
It’s the first time in years the Eagles will be competing in the senior AAA level. Last year they hosted, and won, the AA title.
“That was exciting and it made the guys hungrier this year,” said Graham. “We can’t say it’s been easy this year, but the team kind of flowed into it.”
The Eagles go into the series healthy, but not yet playing at the top of their game, according to Graham.
“There’s always room for improvement,” he said. “Like most championship teams they continue to improve as they go along. I think we’re that way, but then everyone else will get better as well.”
Graham would like nothing more than to win the series and meet Bentley in the final.
“I think every senior hockey fan in Central Alberta would love to see that,” he said. “I think we’re two evenly matches teams. But that’s down the road and we can’t look beyond this series.”
Joe Vandermeer led the Eagles in scoring this season with four goals and 18 points in 23 games. Chad Ziegler had a team leading 12 goals and 15 points in just 14 games. Jonathan Larose has been solid in goal with a 2.42 gaa and a .920 save percentage with Bryce Luker his backup.
The Chiefs scored the second most goals in the league this season and are led by Douglas Auchanberg with 15 goals and 37 points. Richard Kelly had 19 goals and 33 points.
Innisfail has a number of affiliated players, including Okotoks Oilers leading scorer Michael Kneeland, who had 13 goals and 34 points in 21 games.
The second game of the series goes Sunday in Fort Saskatchewan with the third game Feb. 21 at 8:30 p.m. in Innisfail. The fourth game is set for Feb. 22 in Fort Saskatchewan while the fifth game, if needed, is Feb. 28 at 8:30p.m. in Innisfail, Game six is slated for March 1 in the Fort with Game 7 March 5 at 8:30 p.m. in Innisfail.