At the beginning of the MJHL playoffs, the Winnipeg Blues stared up a steep post-season climb that few guessed they'd survive, and the team still believed.
That belief carried them right up until the second that they hoisted the Turnbull Trophy.
In front of a sold-out crowd of over 1,400 roaring fans at MTS Iceplex on Tuesday night, the Blues reached the league summit, seizing their championship moment with a 5-1 win over the Dauphin Kings. With that, the Blues won the MJHL's final in five games, a perfect copy of the way they had dispatched the seemingly unsinkable Selkirk Steelers and the defending champion Steinbach Pistons earlier in the post-season.
Now, the Blues are the new MJHL champions, the first such title for the club in eight years. "I'm speechless right now," said Blues forward Kamerin Nault, who scored two goals and an assist in the championship game. "We battled so hard, for so long, and just to get the reward is fantastic right now. Individually, it's a game you dream of. Just to see that final buzzer go, and you got the W, is the best feeling in the world... We just believed, right from the get-go."
There are so many things that the Blues could point to, in this spirited championship run. There is their starting goaltender, Byron Spriggs, who stood on his head for much of the playoffs and held a save percentage of .936 through 17 post-season games. But Spriggs -- who was named playoff MVP -- didn't have to be great in the very last match: the Kings mustered only 16 shots against him, while the Blues ran away with the game.
After locking horns with the Kings and killing off penalties for much of the first period, the Blues cracked the scoreboard with just over 90 seconds yet to play before the first intermission, when Nault worked the puck out of the corner and sent the puck across the crease to forward Clay Tait, who knocked in an open side of the net for the first strike of the game. Mitch Hansen also picked up an assist on the opening goal.
It was the next goal, a shorthanded marker with just 46 seconds left in the first period, that would be the winner.
That was a curious one. With Blues forward Joel Schreyer dinged for a check from behind (he also received a game misconduct) and the Kings on the power-play, Blues forward Warren Callis broke away from his Dauphin defenders, and found himself in a race with Kings goalie Jordan Piccolino, who had skated out far past the hash marks to chase a loose puck. Callis beat the goalie by a nose, sailed around a rifled the puck from an odd angle into the gaping net.
"I got kinda lucky," Callis laughed afterwards, as friends and family streamed onto the ice to celebrate with the team. "I kinda threw it, I was almost at the goal line, somehow it went in, so I'm pretty thankful for that."
Did Callis think that tally, his seventh of the post-season, would stand up as the game-winner? "Honestly, yeah," he nodded. "The way we played all playoffs, no-one can stop us really. We were underdogs every series, no-one else really gave us a chance, but we proved everyone wrong. It feels great."
The Blues piled on the scoring in the second period with Nault's two goals to take a 4-0 lead. Kings head coach Marlin Murray called a time-out after that to settle his team, and soon after the Dauphin squad drew blood: with 4:30 left to play in the second, Kings forward Dylan Butler whipped a sharp pass to linemate Brent Wold, who slammed the puck past Spriggs to put his team on the board.
It wasn't nearly enough, especially when the Blues limited their opponents to only three shots on net in the third period. The Blues rounded out the scoring with just 1:05 left to play, when Mitch Hansen potted their fifth, with assists to Tait and Taeron Lewis -- the latter's third point of the game.
With the win, the Blues finished the playoffs on a curious note. They won all three major playoff series the exact same way, losing only the fourth game in each best-of-seven series. "We didn't imagine winning every series 4-1," Blues captain Channing Bresciani said of that dominant display. "We just played our hardest every game, and gave it all we got. We stuck to our game plan, and I guess it worked out in the end.
Meanwhile, the Kings and the Blues will face each other again, in this junior post-season. At the end of the month, the Kings will host the Blues and the winners of the Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia junior A leagues in the Western Canada Cup. The five-team tournament kicks off in Dauphin on April 26, while the Kings and Blues are set to face each other in round-robin play on April 29.