They were two wins away from a Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League championship last spring, and the Fort Garry/Fort Rouge Twins don’t appear to have missed a beat this season.
Despite losing some of their top scorers (and eight players in all) from last season, the Twins have rolled through the first half of the schedule.
Entering this past weekend, the Twins had won 18 of their last 19 games and sat in second place at 21-4. Only the four-time defending champion Charleswood Hawks, at 23-0-2, had a better record.
Last season, the Twins started slow but caught fire after Christmas, losing only three of their final 19 games before falling to the Hawks in a six-game championship series.
"Our expectation level was a little lower this year," said head coach Michael Gillam. "If I told you I thought we’d only have four losses with such a young squad I would be lying."
The Twins have eked out some narrow victories, often needing to come from behind, and Gillam is quick to say they’ve received their fair share of lucky bounces.
But regardless of how impressive the record may look as the calendar changes to 2013, the team’s sole focus is on getting better before the playoffs begin.
"The truth is the season doesn’t start until March," Gillam said. "Everything right now is about improving for those important days."
One of the keys to last year’s turnaround was the team acquiring goalie Charlie Pogue from the St. Vital Victorias at the trade deadline. Gillam considers Pogue the best goalie in the league, and believes he gives the Twins a shot at upsetting the Hawks.
"When I came over last year I personally had a lot of motivation to play well," said Pogue, a St. Vital resident. "They had all the pieces they needed. I was just a calming influence. "
While the wins are continuing to pile up, Pogue sees some differences between last year’s team and the current edition of the Twins.
"Last year we had some superstars," he said. "This year we have more range in scoring. From the top line to the fourth line we have a balanced attack. The momentum from the playoffs gave us lots of confidence."
Many of the Twins feel that their intense, seven-game semifinal series against the Raiders (three of the games went to overtime) took too much out of them heading into the series with Charleswood.
Gillam said he "be lying if I said I’ve got it figured out" how to beat the Hawks, but he does think the overall level of competition in the league has gone up a notch this season, and everyone will be more battle-tested come playoff time.
"The league is a lot better," he said. "What we’ve done record-wise is more impressive with how much better everyone is. Even the teams in seventh or eighth place are 100% better than last year."
Gillam said that could be because of the Winnipeg Saints moving to Virden, making the MMJHL an attractive alternative for some junior A calibre players.