In the midst of one of the brightest chapters in their MMJHL history, the resurgent Raiders Jr. Hockey Club is now on the hunt for just one more victory.
One win -- that's all that stands between the Raiders and the MMJHL championship. They are clutching a 3-1 series lead over the St. Boniface Riels in the league final and looking ahead to Game 5 at the Southdale Community Centre on Saturday.
"I think the whole team's pretty revved up," said Raiders captain Jordan Lisowick, a defenceman whose 16 points in 12 games lead the league in playoff scoring. "Hopefully, we can finish them off."
It's been 34 long years since the Raiders last hoisted the Jack McKenzie Trophy. Heck, they haven't even made it to a final since 1995, head coach Andy Williamson said. For years, the Raiders struggled in the standings, often missing the playoffs entirely. But four years ago, a new ownership group consisting largely of former Raiders players took over. Their first year at the helm, the team battled to the semifinal, and again the next two seasons after that.
Now they're in the final hunt, thanks in large part to the efforts of Lisowick and a handful of other players who joined the team in the first year under the new management.
"It ran on some lean years, and the group that's come in now has injected some new life," said Williamson, who played for the Raiders in the late 1980s. "We've given ourselves this great opportunity. We've gotten great leadership from the guys that have been there from day 1."
This season, the Raiders have been fearsome. They roared 33-10-2 through the MMJHL's regular schedule, second only to the Riels, who finished 37-6-2. They swept their first two playoff series, as did the Riels. They roll four lines and score (a lot) by committee: Indeed, six Raiders have averaged a point per game or more in these playoffs. Then there's Lisowick, who Williamson described as a "one-man wrecking crew."
The defenceman pointed back to his teammates.
"We've got a lot of youth on our team, a lot of young guys that are full of energy, that come out every night just banging," Lisowick said. "We don't have a lot of unassisted goals. We got a lot of pretty good chemistry and we got each other figured out. I think that's been the difference this year. We're really diligent that if we get a scoring chance, we capitalize on it."
Meanwhile, the Riels are raring to stage a comeback in the series. The speedy St. Boniface squad last won the MMJHL championship in 1985-86 and were gunning hard for it over this powerhouse season. They started the final off on the right foot, beating the Raiders 5-4 in Game 1. But the Raiders made adjustments, pushed to shut down the Riels' skilful puck-moving offence, and the St. Boniface team dropped the next three contests.
It wasn't for lack of trying. Despite losing Game 4 by a lopsided 7-1 score, the Riels put 49 shots on Raiders netminder Brenden Fiebelkorn that game. He turned all but one away.
"That was kind of the game plan -- to get more pucks to the net -- but he's dialed in right now," Riels head coach Ryan Frykas said. "We gotta find a way to get more traffic. We have a lot of offence, and we still believe in our guys. Hopefully we can find a way to get to them."
Whichever team comes out on top in this series, one thing is guaranteed: The final match-up points to a growing competitive parity across the league.
For more than 10 years, the MMJHL has been dominated by the Charleswood Hawks, who captured nine of the last 12 championship titles. But the Riels swept the Hawks in the semifinals last month and the Raiders handled the Pembina Valley Twisters in the semis. That means for the first time in a decade, neither the Hawks nor the Twisters will be crowned league champions.
"That was a big hurdle, and an emotional stage in our minds," Frykas said of beating the Hawks. "It's great for the league. Every team seems to be getting better and better each year. It's nice for our squad to be right up there."