It was never the plan to save the best for last but it's working out that way for Selkirk Steelers' left-winger Colan Jackson.
Jackson, 20, is having a career year in his final year of junior A hockey. He's the Manitoba Junior Hockey League's leading goal-scorer with 44 in 58 games. He's second in the league's point race with 78 points behind Shane Luke of the Dauphin Kings (27 goals and 59 assists for 86 points).
With just three games left in the 2010-11 regular season, he's not going to catch Luke in points but no one is going to catch Jackson in goals.
"It's the last year of junior for me and 10 other 20-year-olds on our team so that's 11 extra hungry guys, you could say," said Jackson, in his fourth season with the Steelers. "The rest of the guys, they know how much we want (a league championship), and they want it just as bad. Hopefully all 24 of us can come together and get it done this year. We've fallen short in previous years but I feel like this team has something special."
Jackson said his offensive output this season is a personal best but he hasn't thought about it in that context.
"I've had great linemates and I just decided to shoot the puck a bit more this year," said Jackson, who has played mostly with combinations of Derek Gingera, 19, Joel Ridgeway, 20, and Jory Geddes, 20. "Ryan (Steelers head coach Smith) is always saying, 'Throw the puck at the net and good things will happen!' "
Smith, in his second year as Steelers head coach, said Jackson has been a big part of the Steelers' work on the ice and in the community.
"We counted on him going into this season to be a leader, not only on the ice but in the dressing room and off the ice, and he carries himself exactly that way. He's done very well with all of it," said Smith, noting Jackson has led Steelers' development camps and is a regular at the extremely popular player appearances around Selkirk.
Having 11 players in their 20-year-old season is unique for an MJHL team. League regulations allow only nine 20-year-olds to dress in a game. At the trade deadline last month, the Steelers acquired two of those 20-year-olds in Adam Stoykewych from the Winnipeg Blues and Travis Cech from the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League's Battlefords North Stars.
"That's probably not the ideal situation but we felt we needed to add some guys to strengthen our run at the playoffs and we didn't feel comfortable getting rid of any of the 20-year-olds we already had," Smith said. "Our 20-year-olds are a big piece to the puzzle for us and to this date, we haven't had to scratch anybody because we've had injuries or suspensions. We hope that it will eventually pose a problem for decision-making because then everyone would be healthy."
Jackson said the Steelers, who led the Addison Division most of the season but have slipped to second lately, weathered a couple of losing skids on the road.
"It's probably the closest group of guys I've ever played with," said Jackson, who played eight Western Hockey League games with Tri-City Americans in 2007-08. He came back to Manitoba and stayed with the Steelers. "Our goaltending and defence has been extremely strong, we've got an older group back there. In goal, we've got a 19-year-old (Joey Rewucki) and a 20-year-old (Jordan Washburn) who push each other to be better each day."