By Derek Holtom
MJHL Web Correspondent
The final four of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League playoffs are set, and they feature two intriguing matchups. Let’s look at the two series and how they stack up.
No. 5 Portage vs. No. 1 Steinbach
The two-time defending league champion Portage Terriers ‘upset’ the Selkirk Steelers in the opening round series. Upset might be a strong word as they were extremely close in the standings, but the Terriers were the No. 5 seed and they were technically the underdog.
They advance to face the top team in the MJHL this season, the Steinbach Pistons. After finishing as the top seed in the regular season, the Pistons had the unenviable task of facing the hottest team in the MJHL heading into the playoffs – the Neepawa Natives. The Pistons required six hard-fought games to advance against the eighth seed.
Neepawa might have did Steinbach a favour, as they really made them work for their first-round series win, and they have to be sharp as they get set for Portage.
Roman Bengert started all six games for the Pistons, posting a 4-2 record with a 2.50 GAA. His save percentage was down from his season average, coming in at .893. However, he only allowed one goal against in the final two games of the series when it mattered most.
Portage counters in goal with Kurtis Chapman, who started the final four games of the Selkirk series and was lights out, earning first star in the final three games. He boasts a 1.00 GAA and a .965 GAA with one shutout in these playoffs.
Portage was expected to have a strong offense carry them through the playoffs, but they are getting it done defensively as well.
That said, their offense is starting to come alive. Jeremy Leipsic, who had 100 points in the regular season, was comparatively quiet in the first five games of the series, putting up four points in that span. However, he put up four points in the series finale and now leads the MJHL playoff scoring race with eight points (three goals, five assists).
Josh Martin, acquired from Swan Valley at the deadline, is also finding his groove with his new team, and sits second in team scoring with seven points (three goals, four assists). Rookie Ty Barnstable sits tied for third in team scoring with four goals and a helper in six games. Also sitting on five points are Ryan Sokolski (two goals, three assists) and Riley Thiessen (five assists).
Their opponents are getting scoring from many sources, as 11 players got at least one goal in the first round. Leading the way for the Pistons is Bradley Schoonbaert (three goals, three assists) and Mackenzie Graham (one goal, five assists). The only other multiple goal scorer is Braden Purtill and his three goals.
Portage has the edge in the team power play. They are ranked No. 1 in the post season with a 27.78 per cent success rate (better than one-in-four chances), while the Pistons were fourth with an 18.18 per cent success rate.
The Pistons have a slight advantage when it comes to the penalty kill – they were second with 86.21 per cent compared to the Terriers who were third at 84.62 per cent.
There are all sorts of intrigue in this series. The Pistons are the top seed and are looking to get over the hump and win their second championship since relocating to Steinbach. To do that they’ll have to defeat the team who eliminated them in two straight league finals.
The Terriers, meanwhile, are chasing a rare three-peat – an accomplishment not completed in the MJHL since the OCN Blizzard dynasty of the early 2000s.
No. 3 OCN vs. No. 2 Winkler
The other semifinal pits two teams who can keep the puck out of the net. The OCN Blizzard breezed by the Winnipeg Blues in five games in what was the shortest first-round series. The outcome of that series was never really in doubt as the Blizzard dominated the Blues, only falling in Game 4 in overtime.
The Flyers, meanwhile, had another doozy of a series against a familiar playoff opponent, the Virden Oil Capitals. Three of those games went into overtime including a triple overtime classic.
The Blizzard have an extremely strong back end, led by netminder Brett Epp, who posted shutouts in two of five games with a 1.76 GAA and a .939 save percentage.
OCN also generates scoring from their own end, as the reigning most outstanding defenseman Brady Keeper leads the team with seven points (two goals, five assists). The other leading point getter for the Blizzard is forward Victor Knaub with his three goals and three assists. No one else has more than three points through five playoff games.
The Flyers turned to Troy Martyniuk in the opening round, and he put up a sizzling .944 save percentage and a 1.64 GAA. He also chipped in with an assist.
Offensively no Flyer has more than two goals so far in these playoffs. Will Blake leads the team with six points (two goals, four assists), with a logjam of four players tied for second with five points – Ian Mackey, Lawson McDonald (two goals, three assists each), along with Tyler Jubenvill and Nolan McGuire (one goal, four assists each).
One of the special teams matchup is a classic strength versus strength. OCN’s penalty kill was ranked first at 90.91 per cent, while Winkler’s power-play was ranked second and 23.08 per cent.
The other has two weaker units battling one another. Winkler’s sixth-ranked penalty kill unit (77.42 per cent) will match up with OCN’s fifth-ranked power-play unit (15.79 per cent).
Both teams enter the series riding the play of their goaltenders, and this should be a defensive battle through to the end. The winner of the series could be who wins the battle of the special teams.