With two wins now standing between the Dauphin Kings and the national RBC Cup title, the squad knows their work isn't done yet -- but what a wild ride its been.
In one short month, the Kings surged back from a heart-breaking MJHL final defeat to lead the national junior A championship tournament, which is underway this week in Vernon, B.C. In that month, Kings coach Marlin Murray said, his group evolved into a very different team.
"Our guys are playing some of the best hockey they've been playing all year," said Murray via telephone from Vernon Thursday night. "We're just playing the best team game we've had all year. I think we're getting guys who have elevated their play."
Last month, the Kings were licking their wounds after the Winnipeg Blues pushed them out of the MJHL final in five games.
They faced each other again earlier this month, when Dauphin hosted the Western Canada Cup. In that tournament, the Kings were resurgent. They made it to the final where they lost to the Yorkton Terriers, but clinched their national berth in an extra qualifying game.
Now, the 2010 RBC Cup runners-up are on the brink of another shot, and looking to go all the way.
So far, so good. The Kings made quick work of the competition in Vernon this week. Their four-game preliminary round was marred only once, by a nail-biting 2-1 overtime loss to the Terriers on Thursday night. Before that, they had grinded out a 2-1 win over the Toronto Lakeshore Patriots, a 4-3 overtime victory against the Carleton Place Canadians, and a 5-2 rout of the host Vernon Vipers.
Through the preliminary round, the Kings' robust penalty kill allowed their opponents only a single shorthanded goal on 17 chances. On the attack, the Kings' big guns led the way.
Jesse Bernard and Brent Wold tied for the team lead, each with three goals and an assist through four games, while Tanner Butler and Dylan Butler finished with a goal and two helpers each.
In the crease, goaltender Michael Stiliadis was nothing short of superb, with a .943 save percentage that stood head and shoulders above the other starting netminders in the preliminary round.
"We went through a tough time in the MJHL final there," Stiliadis said of the Kings' big turnaround. "We didn't get a lot of bounces in that series. Maybe it's starting to turn in our favour now... we're just building off the momentum."
Maybe it helped that for Stiliadis, there's a little bit of extra pride on the line. The Kings acquired him last season in a trade from Vernon. Getting back there to show them what they were missing was a goal of his from the get-go, he said.
"I feel pretty confident with my game out there, and the guys are starting to build off that," he said. "Hopefully we can keep that going."
Now, the Kings will prepare to play a semifinal Saturday night. On Thursday night, they were still waiting for the final preliminary game to finish to learn who their opponent would be. Whoever it is, they will be waiting, looking to earn Manitoba its first national junior A championship since the RBC Cup era started in 1996.
"In 2010, it was a learning experience for everybody," Murray said. "This time around, obviously you don't take it for granted, getting to a national level. But when you're here, you want to be successful, and all the little things we learned from in 2010 pays off here as we move forward."