With their third provincial championship now won, the Winnipeg Wild are rumbling further down the road that, they hope, will end at the Telus Cup.
Before it's time to talk about taking a shot at the national midget championship, the Wild must survive the regional test in Prince Albert, Sask., this week, against the finest teams that Western Canada has to offer. Of the 20 young Wild men now in the hunt, five have travelled this road before. And that group has some unfinished business to take care of from their regional campaign last year.
"We felt that we fell kinda short," forward Zach Court mused of the Wild's last stab at regionals, where they lost the semifinal to the Saskatoon Contacts. "We played really good all tournament. Then there was about a five- or 10-minute stretch in the semifinal where we just sort of slipped off, and they got four goals. That was the tournament, right there. So this time, we know you gotta play 60 minutes, all 20 guys, no passengers."
It helps they've been thinking that way all along. The Wild roared to a 37-5-2 record during their season, even as injuries piled up: And that, team captain Mark Taraschuk nodded, says a lot.
"We didn't play one regular-season game where everyone was in the lineup," he said on Monday. "I thought it was really something special. You'd see guys out for one or two months, and they're in the gym doing whatever it takes to get themselves healthy.
"Then, when it came to game time, everyone would be ready... This season was all about, you do it for everybody else. You don't do it for the name on the back of your jersey, but the crest on the front. Everyone had each other's back."
It wasn't just their offence -- Court put up 30 goals and 33 assists in 43 games, for instance, or their stout goaltending duo of Evan Johnson and rookie Tyler Brown, whose save percentages ranked first and third in the league, respectively. It was something in the way the team jelled, players and coaches said, something in their camaraderie. This year's Wild hung out together, played pool or watched movies together, besides practising up to four times a week.
So it went that, although not as big as other teams, on the ice they made up for that with chemistry and speed. "It's just a very cohesive group," longtime Wild coach Paul Krueger said. "That's something obviously you can't coach, that you hope to have every year."
Consider, for instance, how they won the Manitoba championship on March 21, in a double-overtime thriller against the Eastman Selects. They were already leading the series two games to one, and it looked like they might take it all when they jumped to a 3-1 lead after the first period. But the Selects battled back with two unanswered goals in the second. Then late in the third, with less than six minutes to play, the Selects grabbed a 4-3 lead on a Devon Skoleski goal.
"The guys stayed pretty calm on the bench," Court recalled; they'd come back from worse.
So it was that, with the Wild's goalie yanked, and just 41 seconds left on the clock, Court fed defenceman Stephen Kleysen to tie the match. The teams fought through one overtime period, then headed into the second extra frame. There, after sustained Wild pressure, Court found Dawson Martin for the winning goal.
A nailbiter, for sure, but they'd spent the season preparing for just that kind of grind.
"At the end of every practice, we'd do a bag skate, five or 10 minutes," Court said. "Because our coach knows it's gonna be tough, that's what it's gonna be like in overtime of the playoffs. So we had a lot left in the tank. But when (Martin's game-winning goal) went in, all the boys' legs were pretty done."
Now, they are hungry to finish the job last year's team left undone, making a run at the regional championship and moving on to the national Telus Cup tournament, which is slated for Moose Jaw, Sask., at the end of this month. Regionals begin in Prince Albert this week, with the Wild set to play their first game against Notre Dame on Thursday.
They've had success in short tournaments this year already, having won gold in a Grand Forks tourney back in October. At regionals, the competition will be tougher, they know. "You've got to be ready at puck drop," said Taraschuk, a 2012 Brandon Wheat Kings draftee. "You can't have five minutes off and let it slip away. We worked hard for this."