Although first place in the Northern Division fell out of their grasp, the Stettler Lightning made sure they solidified second spot in the dying days of the Heritage Junior Hockey League regular season.
The Lightning edged the Mountainview Colts 5-4 in a playoff preview last Saturday, one night after Stettler doubled the Red Deer Vipers 4-2.
Those two wins at home secured second for Stettler (23-11-1), which finishes its regular season this Saturday against the Airdrie Thunder.
“That guarantees us second place,” said Lightning coach and general manager Doug Smith. “No matter what happens now, we end up in second place.
“We could end up tying with Mountainview (in points), but we’d have more regular-season wins than them, so we’re in second place, for sure.”
That’s a far cry from the past couple of seasons and guarantees Stettler playoff hockey for the first time since 2010.
It’s a gratifying turnaround for the likes of veteran coach Smith and an organization celebrating its 20th anniversary.
“Oh yes, very much so,” Smith said. “We had a couple of hiccups in those games on the weekend that could have made them a lot easier than they were, but we showed some resiliency. I thought that was good on our guys’ part that we stuck to it.”
Star sophomore Adam Ternes scored two goals and assisted on the winner Saturday to give him 50 points (19 goals, 31 assists) in 35 games. He’s 10th in league scoring. Logan Davidson netted the winning goal with 1:08 left — and added two assists — as Stettler topped Mountainview. Landon Potter and Reese Anheliger also scored for the Lightning and Simon Thieleman blocked 37 shots. Connor Slipp made 34 saves for the Colts, who got goals from Cole Sutherland, Josh Hammer, Austin Pedersen and Evan Thompson. Kevin Vandenhoven collected two assists.
Stettler played Saturday without its second-leading scorer, 40-point man Dylan Houston, who was suspended after fighting the night before in the Red Deer game.
Derek Muhlbach, with his second of the night, scored the winning goal with 24 seconds remaining and Scott Ternes added an empty-netter as the Lightning beat the Vipers.
Kyler O’Connor had the other goal for Stettler, which also got two-point efforts from Anheliger and Scott Ternes. Thieleman recorded 35 saves, while Red Deer’s Anthony Hamill stopped 40.
Kale Lapointe and Justin Corbett scored power-play goals in the third period as Red Deer rallied from a 2-0 deficit.
While penalty trouble almost cost the Lightning on Friday, they kept their composure against the Colts on Saturday. Although the teams were facing each other for the third time in two weeks, and primed for a head-to-head playoff clash, they kept it mostly clean.
“They’re a good-enough hockey club and the game was close all the way through, so everybody had to stick to hockey that night,” Smith said of the Colts. “I didn’t expect that there would be anything from them that would be a problem.
“That (playoff) series is going to be one where it’s going to be hard-fought, but I don’t think it’s ever going to get too far out of control.”
As of Monday night’s Lightning practice, the dates for the Stettler-Mountainview series hadn’t been finalized.
“We have one game left and we’d like to finish off the (regular) season on a winning note,” Smith said. “It’s always good to go into the playoffs winning.
“Hopefully, Airdrie is still in a playoff battle when they get here on Saturday, so it’ll make it an important game for them, as well.”
Airdrie is trying to overcome the Three Hills Thrashers to take fifth place in the North and gain a play-in series berth against Red Deer. The winner of that mini-series would face the pennant-winning Blackfalds Wranglers.
Blackfalds officially clinched the pennant Sunday with an 11-0 victory over the winless Ponoka Stampeders, who fell to 0-30-3.
Before hosting Red Deer on Tuesday night, Blackfalds (24-7-2) had a three-point edge on Stettler entering the final week of regular-season play.
Knowing where they’ll finish regardless of the outcome of this Saturday’s game against Airdrie, the Lightning can afford to shift their focus — at least somewhat.
“There’s not a whole bunch of juggling we can do with our lineup, because we don’t have a whole bunch of extra guys around,” Smith said. “We’ll maybe give Simon (Thieleman) a rest that weekend, and play Jeff (Skaley) and Josh (McCallum) in there, but other than that, it’s pretty well the usual guys. We might play some different guys on the power play, to give them some opportunity, but it pretty well stays the same.”
Wyat Haustein isn’t expected to be available this weekend, because of work commitments, and Derek Muhlbach is scheduled to depart to his job next week.
The Lightning tentatively open their best-of-seven series at home on Friday, Feb. 21, or Saturday, Feb. 22.
“Just because of the lack of ice time in town here, we’re probably shooting for the 21st or 22nd as the starting date,” Smith said before the Lightning practised Monday night.
“I just submitted possible dates tonight, so I should know from (the Colts) in a couple of days.”
Mountainview (20-11-3) has two games left in its regular season, with a Friday visit to Airdrie and a Saturday home date with Three Hills.
The Lightning and Colts tied 2-2 in their season-series.
“Both teams are very, very similar to each other,” Smith said. “There’s not too many mysteries from each hockey club. It’s just going to be a matter of executing the things that you want to do. Maybe line matchups come into play a little bit, but that’s kind of the advantage of having home ice, is that if you do have to make some little adjustments, you can get them done more often than when you’re on the road.
“We’ve played well down there (in Didsbury). One game kind of got out of control down there, but all the games have been close. So both teams know they just have to stick to their game. There’s not one real game-breaker on either team. Their offence is pretty solid over two and three lines, and so is ours, so you just have to be aware of who’s out there when you’re out there on the ice.”