For the first time since moving to Airdrie five years ago, the Bisons AAA U18 hockey team is back in the playoffs.

For the first time since moving to Airdrie five years ago, the Bisons AAA U18 hockey team is back in the playoffs.

After finishing fifth in the U18 AAA South Division of the Alberta Elite Hockey League (AEHL) this year, the CFR Chemical Bisons qualified for the playoffs and are competing in a best-of-three series in Round 1 against the Calgary Royals.

Airdrie won the series opener 4-1 on Feb. 23 and is preparing for Game 2 tonight at Ron Ebbesen Arena. The puck drop is at 7:15 p.m.

Forward Matthias Bessey scored twice for the Bisons in Game 1, while Cooper Brown and Calan Blondeau also added to the visitors’ goal tally. In goal, Austin White saved 21 of the 22 shots he faced.

“I was pretty proud of the boys,” head coach Brad Bourke said after Wednesday night’s win at Stu Peppard Arena in Calgary. “It was probably our most complete game, especially when things got a little complicated in the third period.

Back in the playoffs

While the Bisons were formed in Airdrie, the AAA team moved to Strathmore in the 1990s and played there for 24 years, before returning to Airdrie for the 2017-18 season. That campaign, they finished bottom of the southern division of what was then called the Alberta Midget AAA Hockey League (AMHL) with a 10-21-4 record, well short of a spot in playoffs.

They came closer in 2018-19, narrowly missing out on the AMHL playoffs. That year, the Bisons finished the regular season in seventh place with a 16-15-3 record, but were just two points out of the playoffs in what was a hyper-competitive South Division.

A downward slide occurred the following season. A young, new-look Bisons with mostly freshman U18 players finished in the South Division basement in 2019-20, this time going 6-24-2. The team finished the campaign 15 points off the playoffs, with a -60 goal differential.

While they got off to a strong start the following season, their 2020-21 campaign came to a premature halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, however, the Bisons managed to stay in playoff position throughout the regular season, finishing the campaign ranked fifth in their division with a 14-16-8 record.

“I think we kind of played playoff hockey all year,” Bourke said, adding that the team “scratched and scratched” every game.

“It’s been a great league this year, with the parity that there is,” he said. “It’s really helped our team in that we have some top guys and some of our depth players have really made huge progress.”

The head coach added that he felt the team was peaking at the right time.

“We’ve been playing like this all along – we know we give ourselves the chance to win any game,” he said.

The Royals are a familiar opponent for the Bisons, who have already faced the Calgary-based team four times this season. The head-to-head record saw the Royals win three of those encounters, including one in overtime. Airdrie’s win over the Royals – who finished just above the Bisons in the South Division – also came in overtime.

“We know their team well and kind of knew what they were going to throw at us,” Bourke said. “We played two very good games at Stu Peppard [earlier this year]so we were pretty confident that if we stuck to a game plan it would give us a chance to win [Game 1].”

If the Bisons win tonight, they will advance to the next round of the AEHL playoffs. If the Royals win, Game 3 will take place the next day in Calgary.

“Hopefully next week we get to the next round,” Bourke said. “We’ll take it one game at a time.”