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Red-hot Blues roll past Pistons

Post-season upstarts take 2-0 series lead on Steinbach

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Maybe it's too soon to call the Winnipeg Blues giant-killers, or simply too bold, given there are at least two games in the MJHL's Addison Division final to go.

Still, there's no harm in reviewing the evidence. To wit: The Blues already soared past the best regular-season team in the MJHL, smacking the Selkirk Steelers in the division semifinal with a 4-1 series win. Now, they've just beaten the Steinbach Pistons 4-2 in the second game of the division final and are clutching a 2-0 series lead against the defending Turnbull Trophy champs, who finished the 2013-14 season with an even better record than last.

So, uh, back to that idea about being giant-killers.

"We want to play with confidence and not be scared to win," said Blues head coach and GM Don MacGillivray before the game on Tuesday. "But we have to be respectful of our opponent. We're going to have to play well to beat them."

So far, so good. After beating the Pistons 4-2 in the series opener in Steinbach on Sunday, the Blues came home to the MTS Iceplex on Tuesday night and gave the bustling home crowd a treat, starting when forward Mitch Hansen cracked the scoreboard just over five minutes into the game. In the second period, they put three more pucks into the net, to clamp down on a lead from which the Pistons could not recover.

The last of that flurry of Blues goals came when rookie forward Jackson Keane, one of only a handful of 16-year-old players in the league, made a nifty shift around the Pistons defenders and fired the puck over Steinbach goalie Zach Rakochy's shoulder. It was the last shot Rakochy faced -- the Pistons yanked him for Nicholas Deery after that, with the Blues up 4-0 and the game only barely halfway done.

The Pistons did push back, adding a late second-period goal from Suede Omeeaso and a late third-period goal from Colin Baudry. It wasn't enough to cool the Blues.

Now, there could be as few as two games between the Blues and the MJHL final that few fans really would have bet on them to make, given the competition in their division.

"It's an unbelievable feeling," said Keane, though he knows it's dangerous for the mind to leap too far ahead. "Enjoy it, I guess, for tonight. Then forget about it tomorrow in practice, and keep playing. You have to keep it game-by-game."

The Blues moved quietly into these MJHL playoffs, ending the season with a middling record of 31-23-6, a distant fourth place in the tough Addison Division. Which is why few would have predicted how they'd light up Selkirk -- the same Steelers who set a franchise record when they reeled off 20 straight wins. The same Steelers who dropped just 11 games of 60 in the season, four of those in overtime.

Heck, going into the division semifinal, the Steelers were ranked second in the entire CJHL. And the Blues beat 'em in five games. No secret to it, their bench boss swore. "We caught them at the right time," MacGillivray said. "They were coming off a good streak at the end of the season and I think we were ready to play."

But really, what changed? The Blues have weapons, though MacGillivray mostly demurred from naming names.

The penalty-killing unit stood tall and netminder Byron Spriggs has been superb through their first eight playoff games, delivering a shiny save percentage of .937. On Tuesday night he was good again, turning away 24 of the Pistons' 26 shots. Steinbach couldn't muster enough pressure for long enough to force him to be great.

Other than that, there's no new post-season ammunition in the Blues' slingshot, as they face these giants down.

"Nothing's changed for us," MacGillivray said. "We stuck with our group, right from day one... We weren't considered to be one of the contending teams right from the get go. But I think we were a good team all year, and kind of stuck in fourth place in a really good division. So we just continued to work. We haven't changed our game going into the playoffs."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2014 0

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