The River East Royal Knights feel like they’re in prime position to challenge for a Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League (MMJHL) title.
The Royal Knights, who knocked off the No. 3 Fort Garry-Fort Rouge Twins in the first round of this spring’s playoffs before putting a scare into No. 1 Charleswood, are looking to keep that confidence heading into the 2013-14 campaign.
"We definitely want to be considered a contender," head coach Ryan Bonni said of the team, which is seeking its first Jack McKenzie Trophy championship since 2000-2001. "I always like our team come playoffs because of our depth. We’ve got some grittiness in there, and in a long series, I think we can wear a team down."
River East will be returning the bulk of its members to the squad that went 22-19-4 last year, as it didn’t lose any players to graduation. Bonni said having a lineup consistent with last season’s will be a benefit to both players and coaches.
"We’re a year stronger and wiser," said Bonni, 34, a defenceman who played 11 professional seasons. "Last year, we started to make that move turning into men, and again even more so
Though the Twins finished 18 points higher than the sixth-place Royal Knights in regular season play last year, Bonni bristled at the thought that it was an upset.
"We went in thinking we could win. Not taking anything away from Fort Garry — they’re a strong, talented team — but we knew what we had in our room," he said.
"We showed the whole league we could take down one of the best teams in the league," added forward Kyle Lee, a Transcona resident. "We showed not to take us easy."
Bonni said forwards Andrew Kossack, Matt Lumsden, Garrett Shymko, and Cam Kilpatrick will be called upon in particular to help lead the team up front this year, while veteran goalie Bryan Tait will shoulder the load between the pipes. North Kildonan resident Kilpatrick, 21, said the Royal Knights truly compete by committee.
"We don’t really have one or two key guys. Everybody contributes — not just on the scoresheet, but in the room, too," the four-year veteran said. "We all know how we can all play together. We can all score. We’re going to have four solid lines all the way through the lineup, defence is always solid."
Lee, a five-year member of the team, has grown in stride with the lineup, as well as Bonni, who took over as coach from father Barry before the 2010-11 season.
"We were not very good in the first couple years, and now we feel, in the last couple years, we can be a strong competitive team," Lee, 21, said.
The Royal Knights posted a 2-3-0 pre-season record, and opened the season Saturday in Morris against the defending champion Pembina Valley Twisters.
Forward Simon Miller, 19, said the drive to beat perennial favourite Charleswood will fuel the Royal Knights this year.
"We still think about it — it makes us more hungry to beat them," Miller, a Garden City resident, said.