By Derek Holtom
MJHL Web Correspondent
It’s called the ‘new’ season: the playoffs. The opportunity to challenge for the historic Turnbull Trophy often breathes new life into teams.
One of the more memorable finishes to a regular season is now in the books, and the eight participants to the 2016-17 Manitoba Junior Hockey League playoffs are set.
The final entrant was not decided until the final game of the regular season, making for some high drama. And only seven points separated seeds two through five, meaning who will make it to the MJHL final is most definitely up in the air.
Below is a preview of the first-round match-ups (full playoff schedule can be seen by clicking here)
No. 8 Neepawa vs. No. 1 Steinbach
The Neepawa Natives returned to the playoffs in dramatic fashion, defeating the Swan Valley Stampeders 6-3 in their final game of the year in front of 1,000 plus rabid fans. Things have not been this exciting in Neepawa in some time, and they are looking forward to getting back into the post season.
The Natives enter the playoffs as the hottest team in the MJHL – going 7-2-1 in their final 10. That’s only slightly better than their opponent – the Pistons were 7-3 during the same stretch.
Interestingly, the Natives picked up a key win over the Pistons in the final week, giving them two crucial points they ultimately required. Neepawa also have the reigning player of the week in Justin Metcalf, who had eight points last week and led the team with 38 goals and 67 points this year. His offense is complimented by the likes of Ashton Anderson (64 points) and Reigan Buchanan (42 points).
They Pistons, though, counter with a deeper and more explosive offense (they were second in goals scored at 4.15 goals per game). McKenzie Graham (32 goals, 79 points), Bradley Schoonbaert (72 points) and rookie William Koop (52 points) will lead the way for the Pistons. They will also get plenty of points from their blueline, led by Tyler Anderson (49 points).
In goal, Roman Bengert sparkled this year with a 2.14 GAA and a .926 save percentage. Neepawa will go with Tyler Gutenberg in goal. He posted a 3.31 GAA and a .903 save percentage.
The Pistons had the best power-play (22.96 per cent) and penalty-kill units this year (89.87 per cent), while the Natives were 10th on the power-play (14.72) and eighth on the penalty kill (79.45 per cent).
No. 7 Virden vs. No. 2 Winkler
There was a real battle for the second seed this year, with four teams having a legitimate shot at that spot. The Flyers pulled away in the end, and thus draw the seventh seeded Virden Oil Capitals.
Winkler did not have an overpowering offensive player this year – leading scorer Scott Gall had a respectable 50 points this year (though he did miss 16 games this season).
What they do bring to the table is an extremely balanced scoring attack – a full 11 players had 30 or more points this year. That means their opponents won’t be able to shut down one line, as they have basically three lines that can score. Other Flyers to watch for this post-season include 20-goal-scorer Braden Billaney and defenseman Lawson McDonald (tied for second in team scoring with 49 points).
Virden also sports a balanced attack, with eight 30-point men. Carter Cowlthorp tied for the team in scoring with 52 points and has goals in 11 of their past 15 games. The other 52-point man is Mack Hardy. He and Tyler Kirkup led the team with 31 assists each.
Between the pipes the battle will be between Virden’s Marc Audet (3.13 GAA, .905 save percentage) and Winkler’s Cole Weaver (2.49 GAA and a .906 save percentage).
Special teams have Virden with an edge on the power-play (19.77 per cent vs 17.06 per cent, while Winkler has the slight edge in the penalty kill (83.88 vs. 83.85).
No. 6 Winnipeg vs. No. 3 OCN
The OCN Blizzard had extremely interesting season this year. Off-ice issue about the future of the franchise and a lengthy stretch where they played constantly on the road did not stop them from having their best finish in years. Now with the team confirmed to play in OCN again next year, the Blizzard and their fans can focus on the task of their first-round opponent the Winnipeg Blues.
The Blizzard are led by the league’ most outstanding player and top defenseman Brady Keeper. The pride of Cross Lake was third in team scoring with 48 points. He logs a lot of playing time, plays all the key situations, and will be key to getting the Blizzard into the final four.
Up front, George King had 36 goals this year, and lead the team with 54 points, tied with Jeremy Dumont. OCN also sports seven 20-plus goal scorers to contend with.
The Blues counter with prolific scorer Dexter Kuczek (eighth in league scoring with 30 goals and 67 points). Winnipeg will rely heavily on him, as well as the likes of Rhett Lough (45 points) and Levi Cudmore (43 points).
In goal Brett Epp played admirably since being acquired by the Blizzard. He was 25-11 with a 2.54 GAA and a .921 save percentage.
Winnipeg has two capable netminders they can go with – Jacob Gnidziejko (2.97 GAA) and Adam Derochie (3.33 GAA). Neither have a save percentage over .900 though.
Winnipeg’s special teams are not that special this year – their power-play is ninth (15.32 per cent) and their penalty kill is a league-worst 77.27 per cent). Meanwhile, OCN sports the fourth-best power-play at 84.91 per cent) and the second-best penalty kill at 84.91 per cent.
Special teams are going to be critical. I also think the Blizzard will get a real boost from their fans who are hungry for some playoff success, and that this series might be over sooner than people think.
No. 5 Portage vs. No. 4 Selkirk
None of the top seeds wanted to place fourth or fifth, because this is going to be a grueling series.
Let’s start with the Selkirk Steelers, who finished a mere point behind OCN and three ahead of Portage. They are another one of those balanced attack teams – 10 players have 30 or more points. They are led by Jake Dudar and his 67 points. Cole McCartan (runner up for player of the week) adds 49 to the cause, with Nathan Halvorsen chipping in 48).
Portage counters with the top scorer in the league in Jeremy Leipsic and his 100 points (the only player to reach that plateau this year). Chase Brakel was second in scoring with 80 points, with four other players scoring a point-a-game pace (James McIssac, Tyler Enns, Ryan Sokolski and defenseman Mackenzie Dwyer).
Rookie Brock Aiken played the most games in goal for Portage, putting up a 3.01 GAA and a .897 save percentage. Selkirk’s Hayden Dola put up better numbers – a 2.74 GAA and a .914 GAA.
This series will be strength versus strength. Portage sports the second-best power-play at 22.85 per cent, compared to Selkirk’s fifth-ranked unit at 17.89 per cent. Conversely, Selkirk’s penalty kill squad is fifth ranked at 83.80 per cent, compared to Portage’s ninth-ranked unit at 79.27 per cent). Portage does have 11 short-handed goals as a bit of an X-factor.