By Derek Holtom
For the OCN Blizzard, Neepawa Natives and Winkler Flyers, it’s time to clean out the locker and think about next year. For the remaining eight MJHL teams, it’s all about the playoffs.
The best-of-seven quarter-finals get under way this week, and there are some intriguing matchups in the first round. With some fresh faces in the mix, and plenty of parity among the top teams, it’s anyone’s guess who will advance to the final four.
Here’s a look at each of the quarter-final matchups.
No. 8 Waywayseecappo vs. No. 1 Portage
Season series – The Terriers went 6-0 against the Wolverines this year.
What to expect – It’s the offensive firepower of the Portage Terriers against the defensive prowess of the Waywayseecappo Wolverines. These are two teams who play completely different styles. The Terriers led the league in scoring with 277 goals, significantly more than the Wolverines, who had just 167 goals this year. Defensively, though, the Wolverines were much closer to the Terriers – they allowed the 181 goals against, compared to 150 for the Terriers. Wayway will be led by MVP nominee Isaac LaBelle in goal, who has been lights out all season – especially in February when he helped his team claw their way into the post season. The Terriers, meanwhile, have all sorts of offensive weapons, such as leading scorer Joey Moffatt (56 points), Reilly Funk (53 points), and rookie of the year Owen Murray (41 points).
Intangibles – The Terriers were rocked late in the season with an 18-game suspension to Braden Billaney for a hit from behind against Winkler in the final week of the season … Wayway led all teams in short-handed goals with 10 … Portage had the best power-play in the league at 25 per cent.
No. 7 Dauphin vs. No. 2 Swan Valley
Season record – The Stampeders went 5-1 against the Kings this year.
What to expect – The Kings return to the post-season to face an old Sher-Wood Division opponent in the first round. The Stampeders, meanwhile, just wrapped up their best regular season ever in terms of standings (they actually won 43 games in the 2002-03 season, but finished third in the Sher-Wood behind OCN and Portage). After a disappointing anniversary season last year, the Kings got back to basics, led by returning head coach Doug Hedley. Dauphin actually contended for a top-four placing most of the season, but a late slide saw them drop to seventh place.
Swan Valley, meanwhile, rode a 10-game winning streak in February to lock up second place, as they appear primed for a deep playoff run. The Kings will rely heavily on defenceman Riley Shamray, who led his team in scoring with 47 points. Other players to watch include forwards Byron Fobair (37 points) and Riley Buller (38 points). Swan Valley counters with the second most potent offense in the MJHL, led by the top three points-per-game players in the league – Josh Tripp (1.47 points per game), Bradly Goethals (1.58 points per game), and Matthew Osadick (1.40 points per game). Tripp also led the league in scoring with 84 points.
Intangibles – Swan Valley sports the league MVP (Tripp) and top defenceman (Quintin Sudom) … Neither teams has advanced to the second round since the Dauphin Kings went to the league final back in 2013-14 … Two of Swan Valley’s victories against Dauphin came in overtime … Shamray was a second-team all-star … The Kings went 6-4 down the stretch, the Stampeders 7-3.
No. 6 Winnipeg Blues vs. No. 3 Steinbach Pistons
Season series – The Pistons went 4-2 against the Blues this year.
What to expect – The defending champion Pistons will face one of the hottest teams in the MJHL in the first round. The Winnipeg Blues surged up the standings by winning nine straight games in the month of February, knocking off Portage, Steinbach and Swan Valley in that stretch. They added some big name talent at the trade deadline in third-leading scorer Tony Apetagon, and he has not disappointed. The Blues’ other real strength is in goal, where Jeremy Link earned the top goaltender honour by playing the second-most minutes in the MJHL this year (behind only LaBelle from Waywayseecappo), winning 26 games in 47 starts. The Steinbach Pistons did well to place third overall in the standings, given how much turnover there was from last year’s championship team. Netminder Matthew Radomsky actually played a couple of playoff games last year in the opening round, so he brings practical experience from last year’s playoffs to a Pistons team hoping to repeat. Offensively the Pistons are led by Brendan Martin, who leads a group of 20-year old veterans who surged to the top of the team scoring this year. Martin scored 31 goals which tied him for fifth most in the MJHL this year.
Intangibles – Steinbach’s Matthew Radomsky led the MJHL in GAA (2.06), and shutouts (six). Winnipeg’s Jeremy Link had the best save percentage at .931 (slightly ahead of the 9.29 Radomsky posted) … Tony Apetagon was third in league scoring with 74 points. He had 25 in 18 games with the Blues, and saw his points-per-game average increase from 1.20 per game to 1.39 … Steinbach defenceman Troy Williams was fourth in power-play assists this year with 16.
No. 5 Virden Oil Capitals vs. No. 4 Selkirk Steelers
Season record – Both teams won three games against one another.
What to expect – The Selkirk Steelers locked up fourth spot in what was a real battle for home ice advantage, beating out Virden and Dauphin for the honour to open up the playoffs at home. This is a team that sports some potent offensive players, such as Nate Halvorsen, who finished fifth in league scoring with 63 points. The Steelers also did well to acquire Noah Basarab from the Swan Valley Stampeders earlier in the season, and the Gimli native rewarded them by finishing tied for 10th place in league scoring. In goal the Steelers will turn to Zachary Bennett. He posted a 2.66 GAA and a .920 save percentage. The Virden Oil Capitals made it all the way to the league final last year, and they’ll look to do the same this year. Virden scored the third-most goals in the MJHL this year, led by the likes of Kolten Kanaski (32 goals, 62 points) and Ben Dalke (22 goals, 55 points). The Oil Capitals can score, but they’ll likely need to lower their goals against if they hope to advance – they were in the bottom half of the league in goals against. Still, netminder Dalton Dosch had flashes of brilliance at times this year, and if he gets hot, the offensively-strong Oil Capitals could do some damage.
Intangibles – Selkirk’s power-play was second best at 22.4 per cent efficiency this year, while their penalty kill was only seventh at 80.2 per cent. Virden’s power play was third at 21.6 per cent, while their penalty kill was also third at 84.5 per cent … The top three setup men on the power-play will be in this series. Selkirk’s Colby Jacquet had 21, teammate Carter Barley had 19, and Virden’s Ben Dalke had 18 … The Steelers were the least penalized team this year at 874 PIMS.