By Derek Holtom
MJHL Web Correspondent
And so it begins – the Manitoba Junior Hockey League final. The season started with 11 teams, and now we are down to the final two – the OCN Blizzard and the Portage Terriers.
The playoffs have been outstanding thus far, and this matchup of two former Sher-Wood Division heavyweights promises to be just as exciting as the previous six series.
Much to the excitement of fans, there will be no shortage of intrigue surrounding this series. OCN makes their first final appearance since 2006 when they fell to the Winnipeg South Blues. And they’ll be looking for their first championship since they won five in a row, the last coming in 2003. Interestingly enough, they were dethroned in 2004 in four straight games in the first round by the fourth-seeded Portage Terriers, who ended up making it all the way to the league final before falling to Selkirk.
Portage, meanwhile, is two-time defending league champions, and is chasing its third straight Turnbull Cup. They’ve never won three in a row before, so they are chasing history. Just as Portage ended OCN’s championship run 13 years ago, the Blizzard have the same chance to put a stop to the Terriers’ three-peat dream.
The two teams reached the final via very different routes. The Blizzard went 8-1 – first dispatching the Winnipeg Blues in five games, and then surprisingly sweeping the No. 2-seeded Winkler Flyers.
The Terriers entered the post season as the fifth seed. They defeated the Selkirk Steelers in six games, and then surprised the league’s top seeded Steinbach Pistons with a six-game classic, closing out the series at home with a 2-0 victory.
This series could span 14 days if it goes to a seventh game, with the first four being bunched together, and the last three being well spaced out. Games 1 and 2 are scheduled for OCN April 8 and 9, with Game 3 and 4 slated for Portage April 12 and 13.
Game 5, if necessary, would take place back in OCN April 16. A Game 6 would be played in Portage on April 19. And if it goes the distance, the Game 7 would be played in OCN on April 22.
The Terriers have used both goalies six times in these playoffs. Kurtis Chapman earned the shutout win in Game 6 versus the Pistons and has two shutouts these playoffs, along with a 1.51 GAA and a .950 save percentage. Teammate Brock Aiken’s stats are also impressive – a 2.39 GAA and a .910 save percentage.
Brett Epp has played every minute in goal for the Blizzard and he has been lights out. He has three shutouts in nine starts, a 1.54 GAA and a .950 save percentage. Statistically, Epp and Chapman are nearly identical.
Offensively the Terriers have really leaned on rookie Ty Barnstable, who has nine goals already these playoffs (as well as one assist). Jeremy Leipsic and Josh Martin are both tied for the league lead in points with three goals and nine assists each.
The Blizzard, meanwhile, continue to generate offense from the blueline. Brady Keeper, the reigning MJHL MVP and top defenceman, leads his team with 11 points (three goals, eight assists) and is a legitimate threat to win the playoff scoring race. He is supplemented by Jeremy Dumont (four goals, three assists), and Victor Knaub (three goals, three assists). Interestingly, no Blizzard has more than four goals through their nine playoff games.
Both squads also have their special teams working. Portage has the top-ranked power play at 23.68 per cent, compared to OCN’s third-rated unit at 20.93 per cent. The Blizzard sport the top penalty-kill unit at 92.50 per cent (with a short-handed goal), while Portage’s penalty killers are ranked fifth at 80.65 per cent.
There hasn’t been a Game 7 in the MJHL playoffs yet, but this could be the one. That’s how close these two teams are heading into the league final. This has all the makings of a classic.