There's still plenty of regular-season hockey to be played, but the Cochrane Generals already know they'll be extending their season, after the local junior B squad clinched a Heritage Junior Hockey League (HJHL) playoff berth last weekend.
Playing in a three-in-three weekend, (three games in three days) to kick off the new year, the Generals claimed five of a possible six points thanks to one-sided wins over the High River Flyers (8-1) and Three Hills Thrashers (9-1), following a 5-4 overtime defeat to the Medicine Hat Cubs on Jan. 6.
The five-point bump improved the Gens' record to 21-7-2, keeping the Cochranites in second place of the HJHL's south division. The Generals are now six points behind the division-dominating Okotoks Bisons, albeit with two games in hand.
Head coach Kurtis Jones was pleased with his players' efforts in their first games of 2023, though he said another point in the game against Medicine Hat would have been nice.
“We just had three games in two and a half days, and out of six points, we got five. That’s a pretty good weekend," he said. "Obviously as a coach, we’d like to have gotten six points, but we lost in overtime in a game that could have gone either way.
"All in all, our guys are firing on all cylinders right now, which is what we need.”
Similar to last season, captain Patrick Forde has led in scoring for the Generals. Playing his final year of junior hockey, the 21-year-old Calgarian is topping the league's scoring charts with 31 goals and 61 points. Second in scoring in the HJHL is another General – Tristan Ripplinger, with 24 goals and 49 points.
"He changes our hockey team," said Jones of Forde's impact. "All our older guys, when they’re firing, it works in our advantage. Connor Stephenson [too]. All our 21-year-olds are very important and when they’re going, they’re going.”
With playoffs kicking off in mid-February, the resumption of the HJHL season in January signals the back-end of the regular season, when players start to think more and more about the upcoming playoffs.
Even though they've already clinched a post-season berth, Jones said the Generals aren't ready to rest on their laurels.
“We still want to seed where we want to seed," he said. "We’re still trying to push as much as we were a month ago.”
In order to receive a bye through the first round of playoffs and secure home-ice advantage, the Generals would have to finish in first place of their division. That's a tall ask, as it would mean catching up to the Okotoks Bisons, who currently boast a 26-2-0 record and are the second-ranked junior B team in Alberta.
Making matters intriguing is that three of the Generals' final fixtures of the regular season will be against the Bisons, including the last game of the regular season on Feb. 10.
Okotoks is a squad that Cochrane has developed a budding rivalry in recent years – the Bisons beat the Generals in the league championship series last season.
But as the Generals proved earlier this campaign, the Bisons are not unbeatable. Cochrane overcame Okotoks 5-4 in the two teams' last battle against each other on Nov. 5, and the Gens will be hoping lightning can strike a few more times in their upcoming fixtures against the league-leaders.
"We just have to play our game and see where we fall," Jones said. "Okotoks is a very good hockey team. So are we, but there’s a reason they’re in first place and we’re in second right now.”
The Generals will be back on home ice to play Okotoks this Saturday (Jan. 14) at 7:30 p.m. at the Cochrane Arena. They'll wrap up their weekend with another home game on Sunday, against High River, with puck-drop at 3 p.m.
For scores, schedules, and other info about the Generals, visit Heritagejunior.com