BLACKFALDS — For all of the success the Blackfalds Wranglers have had, they just can’t seem to win the Heritage Junior B Hockey League championship.
They are headed to provincials again this year but will once again be on a wild card entry after being swept in three games by the Coaldale Copperheads, who finished them off with a 4-1 victory in Blackfalds on Thursday.
The last time the Wranglers won the league championship was 2010, since they have won provincials twice (2011, 2014) and the Keystone Cup Western Canadian Championship once (2011).
Why they struggle in their own league final is a mystery to coach Sean Neumeier.
“It’s important to win the league, but the bigger prize is provincials and obviously that’s our next focus,” he said.
“We just have to look back on history, we didn’t win this last year (bit we won provincials). Now we just have to go do the same thing.”
Craig Lyon, Connor Gross, James Price and Dustin Houghton all scored for Coaldale while goalie Dillan Kelly made 43 saves to earn the franchise’s first league title.
Quinn Brown scored the lone goal for Blackfalds while Thomas Isaman made 30 saves in net.
The key to victory for the Copperheads was their ability to do something no one else in the league could do, shut down the Wranglers’ big guns.
They held Blackfalds to three goals in the three-game series, while keeping Wranglers captain Robin Carlson, who led the HJHL with 92 points (43 goals, 49 assists) in 36 games, off the scoresheet completely.
“I thought it was going to go five games, right to the bitter end, that’s a hell of a team on the other side, and I’m just super happy with the outcome,” said Copperheads head coach Derek Wiest. “We just prepped ourselves all year to start playing playoff hockey. Obviously they’ve got a lot of skill and we just had to contain them and cut down their speed.”
Friday night the Wranglers were snakebitten, outplaying the Copperheads for 54 minutes, but they could not solve Kelly.
Blackfalds was ahead 20-8 on the shot clock after 20 minutes, but trailed 2-1 where it mattered most.
Despite a strong second period, the gap widened with a power-play goal at 5:15 by Price.
With Blackfalds still buzzing in the final frame, Houghton put it away on a bit of a fluky goal, as Isaman misplayed the puck and deflected it into his own net at 10:54.
“We played well tonight, we deserved a better fate tonight but we got burned,” said Neumeier. “They’re a good hockey team and their goalie played well, what are you going to do?”
Kelly was the story, stopping 98 of the 101 shots he faced in the series.
“He’s unbelievable, I’ve had him in past years, he’s a true winner and he comes up huge in big games like this,” said Wiest.
The Copperheads gave Blackfalds trouble all year, as the only team the 34-2-2 Wranglers could not beat. Coaldale (31-6-1) won both games in the regular season and then were clearly the better team in the league final.
“We didn’t have a very good series, that’s not how we’ve been playing all year,” said Quinn, adding they had difficulty finding another gear to meet Coaldale’s intensity. “We knew how to win but we just got a little overwhelmed by the pressure, not everyone was used to it.”
Up next is the junior B provincial championship in Stony Plain from April 2-5 and Neumeier is confident they can repeat last year’s feat.
“If we go out and play like that, we’re going to win at least two out of three in the round robin and give ourselves a chance to win provincials,” said Neumeier.
“I like the way we played tonight, I just feel burned.”