By Derek Holtom
The top two teams from the regular season will clash this Friday in Game 1 of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League final. And while the two teams seem to match up well against one another, there is a vast ocean of difference when it comes to experience in league championships.
The top-seeded Portage Terriers have been here before and then some – they’ve won five of the last seven league championships. They’ll face the Swan Valley Stampeders, who will be appearing in their first-ever MJHL championship.
Let’s take a look at how they got here, and what we might expect.
No. 2 Swan Valley Stampeders (42-13-3-2) vs. No. 1 Portage Terriers (46-11-2-1)
Season series – Swan Valley won 4-2-0 (with one victory coming in overtime).
How they got here – Portage swept the Waywayseecappo Wolverines in the quarter-final round 4-0, and also swept the Virden Oil Capitals 4-0 in the semifinal round. Swan Valley swept the Dauphin Kings 4-0 in the quarter-final round, and beat the defending champion Steinbach Pistons 4-2 in the semifinal round.
What to expect from Swan Valley – its taken 20 years, but the Swan Valley Stampeders are finally in an MJHL final. It’s been a surreal but enjoyable season at times for the Stamps; for example, they started the year without a full-time head coach. They also saw a number of high-profile players return to the team from other programs throughout the season. And putting it all together was head coach and GM Barry Wolff, who only joined the team after the first week of the season.
Swan Valley’s best players really stepped it up in the second round of the playoffs. Twenty-year-old Bradly Goethals jumped into the playoff scoring lead with 15 points in 10 games. League MVP Josh Tripp ran his goal total to nine. Defenceman Quintin Sudom has 10 assists from the blueline. Swan Valley is really leaning on their 19 and 20-year-olds this post-season – the only top 10 point getter for the team is 18-year-old star Matthew Osadick, who is tied for third in team scoring with 11.
In goal, Merek Pipes improved on his numbers from a high-scoring first round, and now sports a 2.78 GAA and a .911 save percentage.
Swan Valley handed Portage four of their 14 regulation or extra-time losses this year. They shut them out twice. They have to be thinking this is the best chance they’ve ever had to win a league title in two decades.
What to expect from Portage – Head coach and GM Blake Spiller has plenty of experience in leading his team to the top prize in junior A hockey. The coach of the year has his team playing at an extremely high level – they’ve won all eight playoff games they’ve played, they have only allowed 16 goals against in that span, and they will be well rested, having finished off the Oil Capitals back on March 28.
And while the Stamps are loaded with older talent leading the team in scoring, the Terriers are a little more balanced, as they have three rookies in their top 10 for scoring – Jay Buchholz (seven points), Reece Henry (five points), and Kolton Shindle (five points). That’s no doubt by design, as the Terriers are hosting the RBC Cup next year, and having talented young players this year could pay off big-time dividends next year when the Terriers will compete for a national title.
But leading the way offensively for the Terriers is returning star Chase Brakel. With 12 points in eight games, the Winnipegger has been all over the scoresheet for Portage. Scott Mickoski, with 10 points in just six games, was scoring at an even higher clip than Brakel in the first two rounds.
In goal, Ethan Peterson – a former Swan Valley Stampeder btw – has been dominant, posting a 1.55 GAA and a .938 save percentage in seven games.
Intangibles – Both teams are undefeated on the road in these playoffs … Portage sports the better special teams units statistically in the playoffs. Their penalty kill was 85.7 per cent vs. 74.5 per cent, while their power-play was 27.3 per cent versus 16.9 per cent.
These have been the two brahma bulls in the MJHL this season. It should be an outstanding final.