By Dale Cory
The Heritage Junior Hockey League (HJHL) season certainly got off to a good start for the Ponoka Stampeders, considering the team’s first goal came just 80 seconds into its season opener.
When Ponoka’s Colin Richard scored at the 1:20 mark of the opening period Sept. 28 against Stettler at the Ponoka Culture and Recreation Complex, fans had to believe this was going to be a much-different Ponoka squad that could challenge the upper-echelon teams from Red Deer and Blackfalds in the North Division.
But the team’s fortunes quickly spiralled downward during opening week in the HJHL.
Brett Ouellette’s shorthanded goal midway through the first period tied the game. Ouellette than drew an assist on Shane Liukkonen’s goal early in the second period, Jason Schwarzenberger made it a 3-1 game midway through the second, and Stettler would go on to record a season-opening 4-1 victory over the Stamps.
Stettler outshot Ponoka 25-7 in the second period, and held a large advantage in shots on goal, outshooting the Stamps 59-24.
Despite suffering the loss, Logan Stebner still managed to record 55 saves in the Ponoka net.
The loss was the first of three-straight for the Stampeders during opening week.
“Overall, we suffered a letdown of a period here and there. If we had played six out of six periods, we would have been okay. But we played four out of six,” said Stamps head coach Randy Rook.
“The weekend gave us a real good idea of where we’re at. We need offence. We just have to put the puck in the net.”
Copperheads 5 Stamps 1
A four-goal second period proved to be fatal for the Stamps as they began a two-game road trip to Southern Alberta Oct. 1.
Carter Littleshields scored his fourth goal of the season just 44 seconds into the contest to give Coaldale a 1-0 advantage.
The Copperheads then rattled off three straight goals in the second period to take a commanding lead, before Cole Pritchard gave Ponoka some life with his first goal of the season at 18:46. Eric Paterson and Jordan Pritchard drew assists on the power play tally.
But the Stamps’ momentum was shortlived.
Coaldale scored with just 47 seconds left in the second period, and cruised to its 5-1 triumph.
The Copperheads outshot the Stampeders 36-25.
“Saturday in Coaldale, we came out hard, and banging them, then they get a quick one. We fell asleep and in a five minute stretch, bang, bang, bang and they had three goals,” explained Rook. “But you know what, that’s youth. There were mental breakdowns. Some of the guys got out of their zone. When somebody tries to do someone else’s job and leaves his assignment, the puck ends up on the back of the net.”
Cubs 9 Stamps 2
Four power play goals led Medicine Hat to its easy home-ice victory over Ponoka last Sunday, ensuring the Stamps a winless opening week in the HJHL.
The Cubs scored three times in the opening period, and held a 4-0 advantage early in the second when Ryan Blades finally got Ponoka on the scoreboard with a shorthanded tally. Blades’ first of the year was assisted by Josh Elliot.
Five-straight goals had Medicine Hat up 8-1 until Blades and Elliot combined on a tally late in the game for the 9-1 final score.
The Cubs outshot Ponoka 62-29.
“In the Medicine Hat game, we were simply a tired bunch. We came out pretty good in the first period, but it seemed the players were too tired,” said Rook. “Depth is a big thing. We have a couple of injuries and that doesn’t help.”
Despite the 0-3 start Rook isn’t about to get concerned just yet.
“I’m not panicking,” said Rook Monday evening. “It was a good team bonding exercise. That was definitely the case this weekend. We’ll be a competitive team. I don’t doubt that at all.”
Considering the Stamps gave up 157 shots on goal in their first three games, Rook knows better defence needs to be the focus in practice this week.
“The kids have to learn to play their positions,” insisted Rook, happy to see his team score its first power play goal of the year. “We’ve got to play a physical, defensive game. We did it in the third period of both games. You can’t let guys walk all over you. Once the panic stops we’ll be fine.”
Rook says blueliner Bryce Hunker, out with an ankle injury, still needs time to heal, giving some of his younger players more ice time.
“Bryce is still walking around in a cast. We don’t want to rush things and lose him longer,” said Rook, who has a new player coming in this week. “Kyle Colonna from Red Deer will join us. He’s a big body who can put the puck in the net. He’s got some hands from what I hear.”
Next up … The Stampeders will go for their first win of the season Friday in Stettler. The Lightning beat Ponoka 4-1 on opening night. The Stamps will host Airdrie Saturday, Oct. 8 at 8 p.m. at the Ponoka Culture and Recreation Complex.
Who’s hot and who’s not … The Thunder lead the North Division with two wins, a loss and a tie for five points. Three Hills has a 2-1 record, and Stettler sits at two wins and two losses heading into Friday’s game against Ponoka. Red Deer is still unbeaten. The Vipers were victorious in their lone game of the season.
In the South Division, Medicine Hat has three wins, a tie and an overtime loss for eight points, two points better than Cochrane, 3-0, and Okotoks, 3-1.
Ponoka, at 0-3, and Banff, at 0-4, are the league’s two remaining winless teams.
“I still think we’ve got a pretty good team,” summarized Rook. “We’re closing the gaps and getting some depth. We’ll be fine. Nobody plays to make the playoffs in September. We’re working toward January and February.”