The stage is now set for the MJHL’s final showdown, as the last two teams standing prepare to battle to be crowned the new league champions.
On one side: the Dauphin Kings, victors of the league’s Sher-Wood Division, resurgent after a shaky start to the season and coming off of two straight playoff sweeps. On the other end of the ice they’ll face the Winnipeg Blues, upset winners of the MJHL’s Addison Division, still riding high after dispatching the MJHL’s top two regular-season teams in quick succession. They beat both the Selkirk Steelers and defending MJHL champion Steinbach Pistons in five games.
'I think the mood's really peaked. We skated yesterday, and it seemed like we had lots of jump... I think the guys are excited about what lies ahead'
"I think the mood’s really peaked," Blues coach Don MacGillivray said on Thursday. "We skated yesterday, and it seemed like we had lots of jump. and that’s right after completing the series. I think the guys are excited about what lies ahead."
Well, this oughta be a good one. The Kings and Blues open the final series on Sunday at the MTS Iceplex, and both head coaches are prepping for a grind. The teams match up well on the depth chart and in the net, where Kings starting netminder Michael Stiliadis and Blues backstop Byron Spriggs have raised their games in the post-season. (Spriggs’ playoff save percentage of .936 through is second only to Stiliadis, though Spriggs faced almost twice as many shots.)
What else? The Blues’ power play is hot. They pounced on a third of their power-play chances in the post-season, almost double what they could muster during the regular campaign. On the flipside, Dauphin have been standing tall short-handed, killing off 94 per cent of penalties through eight playoff games.
So it will come down to little things, coaches predicted, to chip away and take the lead. "For us to be successful, we’ve got to use our team speed," Kings head coach and GM Marlin Murray said. "We’re fresh. We want to make sure we start on time and dictate the start."
The teams do know a bit about each other. They met four times in the regular season and split that series, though three of those games were before the Dec. 1 MJHL trade deadline. The Kings’ roster looks a lot different now. After a sluggish start to the season and with the pressure of hosting the Western Canada Cup pressing on their shoulder pads, Murray shook the roster with some acquisitions and trades.
Those pick-ups paid big dividends for Dauphin. Among them was former Portage Terriers forward Dylan Butler, a dynamic scorer who has potted six goals and five assists in just eight playoff games. His Terriers teammate Brent Wold came over, too, and has kept up his season pace more than a point per game through the post-season.
Meanwhile, the Blues entered the playoffs quietly, a distant fourth behind the Steelers and Pistons. So they turned heads when they blazed through the Addison Division. But on the other side of the league, the Dauphin Kings watched the Blues’ playoff march and didn’t raise an eyebrow.
"Honestly, they haven’t surprised us at all," Murray said. "Whenever we played them this season, they’ve been arguably the hardest working team that we’ve seen. They might not have the elite players they’ve had in the past... but they’re a hard-working team with an excellent defensive core. When you keep things simple, good things happen."
Because the Kings are already guaranteed a host team spot in the Western Canada Cup this year, that means that fighting their way to the MJHL final guaranteed that the Blues will also play in the regional junior A championship, which kicks off in Dauphin on April 26. Still, both teams would prefer to go into that tournament on a winning note.