Days before the provincial high school hockey championships get underway, the Oak Park Raiders are hungry to show they've still got what it takes.
Last year, they almost took it all. They blazed as far as the AAAA provincial final, where they fell in a 3-1 scrap to the rival John Taylor Pipers.
Well, a lot of the players from that Oak Park team are back, and they've had a taste of what it is to be on top. Besides, the Raiders are always a threat to become provincial champs. "We feel we've still got more," coach Joel Nedecky said on Tuesday, at a press conference to unveil the tournament draw. "It's another chance."
This time, there is a giant waiting to be slayed. The provincial tournament opens on Friday at Gateway Recreation Centre with the teams divided into two pools: Oak Park, the St. Paul's Crusaders and the Morden Thunder are in one, while the River East Kodiaks, Kelvin Clippers and Dauphin Clippers share the other. The top two teams from each pool will move on to the semifinals on Saturday afternoon, with the championship game slated for the St. James Civic Centre on Monday night.
The Raiders' first opponent in the preliminary round, at 8 a.m. on Friday, is the fearsome St. Paul's Crusaders. The Crusaders were absent from the provincial high school championship pool last year, after the spunky Stonewall Rams handed them a stunning upset in the city quarter-final. This season, they didn't get caught like that again: indeed, the Crusaders marched almost undefeated to claim the Winnipeg High School Hockey League championship earlier this month.
In fact, the only Winnipeg team to beat 'em clean in regulation was the Raiders. That was back in the opening days of January, when the Oak Park squad potted two second-period goals and the Crusaders' usual offensive juggernaut could only bite back with one. It was a learning experience, especially when the two teams' first meeting of the season ended with the Crusaders winning 7-1, and one the Raiders will now look to build on.
"We came out really strong, we played a big physical game," recalled Raiders defenceman and captain Jeremy Hope. "We just have to shoot a lot and play physically. I think we're kind of the underdog going into this game, but having all the experience from last year and previous years, I think we have a pretty good opportunity."
So too do the Crusaders, so dominant this season and already with a city championship and the league's top four scorers to their credit. And the St. Paul's seniors, well, they haven't forgotten the upset last season. "We learned that we had to come out with a better mentality, not getting complacent and thinking we already won," said Crusaders forward Ryan Hutton, the league scoring leader. "Some of the veteran guys coming back, we're all better for it, for sure."
Still, it could be anyone's game. The Raiders have already shown they can beat the Crusaders, and the Kelvin Clippers came awfully close in the city playoffs. "We barely squeaked by them in the semis," Hutton said. "I think it's going to shape up to be a really competitive tournament this year."