THE team on top of the hill usually wears the target.
To start the Manitoba Junior Hockey League playoffs tonight, that will be the league-leading Dauphin Kings, who pulled in with 96 points (47-11-2) after 60 games.
The Kings, though, are wearing a pretty good coat of armour these days -- a 20-game winning streak to end the regular season.
"As a coaching staff, we've looked at the streak and sometimes when you get to seven or eight or even 10, you're pretty proud of the guys," Kings GM and head coach Marlin Murray said from his office on Thursday as he was into final preparations for tonight's Game 1 of his team's best-of-seven first-round series against the Waywayseecappo Wolverines. "Because the parity of the league is so good, there's never an easy night but the longer the streak has gone on, the more the guys have wanted it and bought into it.
"We've had some injuries here and there but guys don't even want to come out of the lineup, they want to be part of it so much. That's the most important part about the streak, that it's taken all 23 guys to get it done and both goaltenders have their fingerprints all over it."
The Kings are packing a potent punch in every department.
They had the MJHL's top three scorers during the regular season, forwards Jesse Sinatynski, the scoring champion at 93 points (43-50-93), Jon Gaudet (37-53-90) and Guillaume Naud (32-56-88).
With the league's best defensive record, they have 28 wins from Jeremy Pominville and 19 more from Brian Archibald in goal.
And there's always the matter of a rivalry for the playoffs' opening round, and Murray said his team is taking nothing for granted, even though the Wolverines limped into the playoffs with a five-game losing streak and just 55 points, 41 fewer than the Kings.
"Wayway and us have built up a rivalry over the past decade, just an hour and 45 minutes down the road from each other and both teams respect each other but likely don't like each other," Murray said. "Whenever Wayway and Dauphin get together, it's usually a good game. We think Wayway's going to be a challenge for us. We don't expect anything to be easy. They're a good club, well-coached and they work extremely hard."
The OCN Blizzard and Swan Valley Stampeders will battle it out in the other Sher-Wood Division semifinal, starting Saturday.
Over in the Addison Division, the Winnipeg Blues finished first with 91 points, five fewer than Dauphin, and earned home-ice advantage for the first round match-up against the Winkler Flyers, starting tonight at the MTS Iceplex.
The other Addision semifinal features the most intriguing pairing, at least on paper, with the Steinbach Pistons meeting the defending league champion Portage Terriers.
Steinbach earned home-ice advantage, starting tonight, for this one by a single point, 66-65.
The franchise is making just its second playoff appearance after being last in the division one season ago. As the Southeast Blades, the organization's other appearance (2003) resulted in a run to the league final before bowing to OCN.
The Terriers were an 89-point team, best in the league, a year ago but have been unable to recapture that form, in large part because Brendan Harms and Brent Wold, the team's top two offensive producers last season, spent this season with teams in the USHL, while defenceman Yvan Pattyn, who still had eligibility, played this season for Vermont in the NCAA's Hockey East.
Winnipeg Blues vs. Winkler Flyers
Game 1: Friday in Winnipeg
Season series: Blues 8-1-0, Flyers 1-8-0
Steinbach Pistons vs. Portage Terriers
Game 1: Friday in Steinbach
Season series: Portage 5-4-0, Steinbach 4-5-0
Dauphin Kings vs. Waywayseecappo Wolverines
Game 1: Friday in Dauphin
Season series: Daupin 7-0-1, Waywayseecappo 1-6-1
OCN Blizzard vs. Swan Valley Stampeders
Game 1: Saturday at OCN
Season series: OCN 5-2-1, Swan Valley 3-5-0