In the end, St. Paul's Crusaders completed their march through a nearly perfect season, one that ended only when they claimed Manitoba's top high school hockey crown.
On Monday night, the St. Paul's squad surged to the provincial championship, beating the River East Kodiaks 4-1 in a hot-blooded battle at St. James Civic Centre. In so doing, they returned to a familiar place at the top of the pile, returning them to the title they last won in 2011-12. "It's just an awesome feeling," said Crusaders goalie Ben Thorlakson, named the tournament MVP. "It's just a dream come true. It's pretty emotional right now, and I'm just loving the feeling."
The score on the board doesn't necessarily tell the story on the ice: both teams fought hard, through the night. Right off the top, the Crusaders lost one of their key players, as Zach Sackett went down with a separated shoulder, and the Kodiaks hit a post. So both teams dug in, then, for a tough contest, with one period done and the game still scoreless.
They started the second at loggerheads too, though the Crusaders steadily ramped up the pressure in the River East zone. For awhile, Kodiaks goalie Myles Piche turned away most of their shots. Then there, in the second, the Crusaders bench got a welcome surprise. "Zach Sackett came back onto the bench, and it really lifted everybody's spirits," Crusaders coach Andrew Harder said. "He played through a lot of pain, and gutted it out."
With that surge of energy, the Crusaders suddenly broke through, with two quick goals from J.P. Lovell: the first, with just over seven minutes left in the period, came when a Kodiaks defender went down to block off a shot by St. Paul's Tyler Kee. The puck squirted back onto Lovell's stick, and with Piche already down the St. Paul's forward shovelled it home. About 40 seconds later, Lovell added another marker, that one with assists to Scott Morrison and Spencer Ferbers.
"The defender hooked him, and the puck came right behind him, and the defender fell and I just put it in the five-hole," Lovell, a Grade 10 student, recalled of the play. "It was just unbelievable, the greatest feeling. This is my first championship, so I'm just really glad."
The Kodiaks fought back in the third, turning up the offensive pressure, though they couldn't solve Thorklason. Crusader forward Ryan Hutton nabbed his team's third goal with just 5:41, but the Kodiaks wouldn't go down without a fight. They roared back there, responding just 31 seconds later with a goal of their own, this one when Tristan Beach-Ducharme's shot popped past Thorlakson to put the Kodiaks on the board. Nolan Wisniewski, later named to the tournament's all-star team, picked up an assist on that goal.
River East would fight for another one in the dying minutes of the game, when Crusader Brandon Paradoski sitting in the sin bin and just 2:26 left to play. The Kodiaks scrapped hard on the ensuing power play, getting a few good chances; but after a goalmouth scramble, the puck squirted loose and St. Paul's Cole Zadro sent it flying down the ice for the final empty-net goal.
Rounding out the tournament all-star team were the Crusaders' Alex Bouchard and Griffin Doel, River East defenceman Tyler Hall and goalie Myles Piche, and the Oak Park Raiders skater Shane Kustra-Nelson.
The Crusaders aren't the only provincial champions in Manitoba. Last weekend, the Neepawa Tigers eked out a 3-2 overtime victory over the Deloraine-Hartney Colts, claiming the AA Manitoba High School Hockey championship off a winning goal from Braeden Mitchell. It's the third time in a row the Tigers have won the title. The bronze medal at the AA level went to the Major Pratt squad, which earned third place with a 4-1 win over Melita-Waskada.