By Derek Holtom
MJHL Web Correspondent
If the MJHL season was a month long, the Neepawa Natives would be a playoff team this season.
But of course, the season is many months longer, and there is still a lot of hockey left to play, but the Neepawa Natives are off to one of their better starts in recent memory.
New head coach Dustin Howden, though, isn’t satisfied with being in eighth place after the first five weeks of the season, and is looking to take his team to further heights.
“We’ve had a decent start – to say it’s where we want to be, that wouldn’t be true – but we are giving ourselves a chance at two points every night,” said Howden, who moved into the head coaching position after starting as an assistant with the Natives back in 2014. “But it has been a grind here for the past couple of years, and this is all part of the process.”
Maintaining a large portion of his young team from last year, the Natives are for the most part a year older and a year wiser. That’s helped them to pick up five wins in their first 12 games – including a three-game win streak.
“It’s a good group of guys who have come back, and they’re all in better shape,” noted Howden. “It’s fun to come to the rink – when you’re competitive and the league is very close this year – what more could you ask for when you’re a player and a coach?”
What’s led to the improvement for the Natives this year? Howden says it’s simply a matter of out-working their opponents.
“It’s reinforcing (working hard) all the time,” he said. “We also want to value the puck more. So puck management, turnovers, and offensive zone time.
“Hockey is ultimately a game of fundamentals, and if we continue to do that, it will help us keep the puck in the offensive zone as much as we can.”
The Natives plan to spread the scoring around, but Howden did mention some players who are really contributing early on this season.
“It’s been a good mix of everybody on the team,” said Howden. And he’s right – only one player on the roster has yet to pick up at least one point this year.
“The young guys coming in have been great additions for us – guys like Sam Stewart and Brad Marshall,” he added. “And veterans we have asked to put up some points are – guys like Justin Metcalfe, Jordan Martin and Ashton Anderson. And Reigan Buchanan has really hit his stride the last few games.
“But we’re a team that will score by committee.”
As for November, the Natives have some tough opponents in front of them. And Howden says they are up for the challenge.
“The goal for this year was to play .500 hockey and go from there, so we’re below that now, so we want to get up to that .500 level as quickly as possible,” he said. “November gives us Steinbach three times, the Blues two or three times, OCN, Virden and Portage. That’s a tough month, but a good month. And if we give ourselves some opportunities, we’re going to win some hockey games.”