The final goal in Sunday’s double-overtime battle between the Winnipeg Wild and the Winnipeg Thrashers wasn’t a fancy snipe, wasn’t even the prettiest goal in the white-knuckle game.
But it was the one that mattered most. It was the one that sent the Wild’s sticks and gloves flying into the air and clattering across the Gateway Recreation Centre ice. It was the one that crowned them champions of the Manitoba AAA Midget Hockey League with a 4-3 victory.
For more than 70 minutes of play, the two teams battled, tired legs gunning for one more hit, one last goal, a little more ice. The Wild, who led the best-of-five series 2-1, were hoping to clinch the title. The Thrashers were fighting to keep their championship hopes alive.
In the first minute of double-overtime, the game was tied at three. With Thrashers defenceman Ryan Gardiner in the box for hooking, the Wild started on the power play. A shot struck Thrashers goalie Troy Martyniuk, who had robbed the Wild a few times in the game.
There was a rebound. Martyniuk was down. The puck came to Wild forward Jackson Keane’s stick, and at 19:07, he took a shot that didn’t miss.
"I just tried to get a shot on net, and it was a perfect shot," a breathless Keane said later as his teammates lifted their index fingers for one championship photo after another.
Keane almost didn’t have the chance to fire the winner. For awhile, it seemed the Thrashers would force a game 5. They were ahead 3-2 with under a minute left in regulation, thanks to a hat trick by captain Alex Keena.
But with just 53 seconds left to play and the Wild’s goalie watching from the bench, Wild forward Jake Dudar found the puck in a scramble and sent it into the Thrashers net for the 3-3 tie.
"We picked the guy to go out, and he was due," Wild coach Paul Krueger said. "I’m really proud of these guys. They battled really hard and they worked for it."
Shawn Pachet picked up the assist on the game-tying goal.
In the end, the game could have gone either way; it had before, when the teams split the first two tilts of the series and came down to a 4-3 overtime nail-biter on Friday to put the Wild one game ahead. Thrashers coach Dan Eliasson said he was proud of his team’s fight and praised the Wild for theirs. Krueger returned the praise.
"It was the toughest series I’ve been involved in," Krueger said. "Every game was down to the wire. It was just really hard-fought on both sides. The (Thrashers) gave us everything they had, we gave them everything we had."
Now the Wild will head to Kenora in April for the Telus Regional Championship after a quick rest.
With one war behind them, they’re ready for the next.
"We all have confidence," Keane said. "We just got to play the same way we’ve been playing. We’re a hard-working team and we’ve got lots of skill, and that’s what we’re going to bring to regionals."