STEINBACH -- Suddenly, the Steinbach Pistons are stuck fast on their road to a repeat Turnbull Trophy, stalled by the onslaught of the Winnipeg Blues.
On Thursday night, the resurgent Blues wrote another chapter in the MJHL's post-season fairy tale, thumping the Pistons 7-2 in front of 1,066 fans that squeezed into Steinbach's T.G. Smith Centre. With the win, the Blues now have a 3-0 stranglehold on the Addison Division final series, and they have the kind of confidence that only winning big can bestow.
Heck, of all the skaters on the Blues roster, only five didn't make a mark on the scoreboard, while five of them -- Jordan McCallum, Jackson Keane, Brett Brooks, Liam Bilton and Garret Browning -- notched two points on the night.
"We use our whole bench," head coach Don MacGillivray said. "We got different guys contributing in different ways; that's been the difference for our team on this stage. It's better when you're playing as a team and got a bunch of guys contributing."
Though the Pistons outshot the Blues 30-26 throughout the game, the wheels fell off for them in the second frame, when a pile of penalties set them back on their heels. The Blues capitalized, cashing in for two power-play goals in the middle frame and two more markers with the man advantage in the third.
The Pistons looked frustrated as the penalties and defensive miscues and goals-against mounted; the Blues just seemed to surge.
Still, when Piston forward Colin Baudry cracked the scoreboard with just over 13 minutes left in the game, Pistons fans cheered heartily.
They stood and cheered again four minutes later when Suede Omeeaso put one in the net. Yeah, all that meant is that the Pistons were then trailing by 7-2 instead of 7-1, but hey, it might have been the last time this season the Pistons fans could cheer a goal in their home barn.
The series will return to the MTS Iceplex on Sunday, where the Blues will be hungry to make the kill in front of their home crowd.
The MJHL's lone Winnipeg club wasn't expected to make much noise in these playoffs, not in a division where they trailed the second-place Pistons and the standout Selkirk Steelers. They beat the latter in the first round and are one game away from beating the former to take their place in the league final.
Yeah, the Blues have surprised a lot of people. To the Pistons brass, the story looks sort of familiar. "They've been playing very well," Pistons head coach Paul Dyck said, hours before the puck dropped at the T.G. Smith Centre Thursday night. "I think they're a team that believe in themselves right now. They see an opportunity and they're seizing the moment. There's some parallels to what we did last year on the ice."
Whatever happens in game 4 of this series, the Pistons have already proved their sensational 2012-13 championship campaign was not a fluke -- and the fan support that flooded their arena is here to stay, too.
This year, an average of 961 fans flocked to catch 30 home games during the regular season, more than double what it was just two seasons ago -- and the Pistons gave them a show, rolling 42-16-2 through the year, good for second in the entire MJHL.
The playoff crowd has been standing-room only, as it was again Thursday night.
"There's a different type of pressure, but it's also a much more enjoyable situation when there's pressure to continue to be successful, than how to find a way to be successful," Dyck said. "You get a taste of it; now everyone wants more of it."
What a difference two seasons can make. In 2011-12, the Pistons won only 13 games, landing in the MJHL's basement for the third time in the three seasons since they'd moved to Steinbach.
The crowds were accordingly sparse, with somewhere around 475 people filling their home barn. With the franchise flagging, the community moved in: Before the 2012-13 season, a consortium of 38 owners from the Steinbach region took over the team, cleaned house and promoted Dyck to head coach and GM.
Just like that, the Steinbach Pistons won. They went 31-25-4 last season, battled to the league final and beat the Dauphin Kings in six games to claim the Turnbull Trophy.
The atmosphere in T.G. Smith Centre that night was electric, crowds jammed shoulder to shoulder in the aging arena.
Now, this campaign has shown those fans were hungry for winning hockey, and now they seem here to stay.
"I think it was the first time where a large number of people had the feeling it was Steinbach's team," said Dyck, who joined the Pistons as an assistant coach before the ownership change.
"The fans can identify with that. We're just a hard-working, blue-collar team. You can see the passion. There's very few nights where guys take a night off."