Portage Terriers chomp down on junior hockey crown after a daunting fight

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STEINBACH, Man. -- The whole season had the whiff of the inevitable, as if it was all about the Portage Terriers making an inexorable march to their destination.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/04/2015 (2786 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

STEINBACH, Man. — The whole season had the whiff of the inevitable, as if it was all about the Portage Terriers making an inexorable march to their destination.

In the final mile, they faced a daunting fight, but they made it. They are, officially, the new Manitoba Junior Hockey League champions.

The Terriers completed their four-game sweep of the scrappy Steinbach Pistons Tuesday night, clinching a 4-3 win in the enemy territory of T.G. Smith Arena, to the cheers and howls of a loud and sold-out crowd — one that included a hearty delegation of their own fans.

Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press Portage Terriers netminder Justin Laforest thanks the hockey powers as his club captures the MJHL championship title Tuesday night in Steinbach.

With that, the Terriers finished their perfect 12-0 march to the Turnbull Trophy, having put down the Waywayseecappo Wolverines and the Virden Oil Capitals in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

“Pure elation,” said Portage goaltender Justin Laforest, who posted a .941 save percentage in the playoffs. “We’ve worked all season for this. All the bag skates, all the workouts, it all adds up to this right now. To get it with these guys, there’s nothing better.”

Now, even though Portage is set to host the national junior A RBC Cup in May, they’ll get to battle for the right to be there at the Western Canadian Championships, which will take over Fort MacMurray, Alta., later this month. They’ll head there with a grin.

“We won our way to Westerns, we didn’t just get our bye to the RBC,” Laforest said. “It kind of sends a message to everyone in the hockey world that we’re here, and we’re ready to play.”

Anyone watching the MJHL lately knew that already. Portage went a staggering 53-3-4 through the season (the Pistons, a respectable 39-14-7, finished second), and their goal differential through that campaign yawned into a chasm: 285 for, 120 against. In the playoffs, that gap grew even wider.

Still, Steinbach was the last team to beat ’em: That upset came only in February, a clean regulation win in the dying days of the season. So it was certainly possible the talented Pistons could push the issue to a fifth game in the series. This time, this year, in this Game 4, they didn’t.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. Indeed, the Pistons peppered 17 shots on brilliant Portage goalie Justin Laforest in the second period alone. Only one of those found home, when an exhaustive shift finally paid off for Pistons forward Denis Bosc, who fired a pretty snipe high to Laforest’s glove side to put his team on the board.

By then, though, their survival hopes had already withered in the face of a snarling Terriers attack.

Portage had struck twice in the first, led by their blazing top line of Elkhorn, Man., brothers Brad and Shawn Bowles and partner-in-crime Zack Waldvogel. Brad Bowles opened the scoring with a flukey tip on a howling Davis Ross shot; a few minutes later, Shawn Bowles filled the Steinbach net. Early in the second, Portage forward Tyler Jeanson scored to put his team up 3-0.

Waldvogel, who picked up an assist on the first two goals, knew they were in for a fight. “We knew they were going to come with everything they had,” he said. “We just wanted to get out of here with a win, and the championship. So job well done, I guess.”

Like he said, the Pistons didn’t go down without a battle. Goaltender Nick Deery battled, the way he has so often in these playoffs, making a couple of tricky saves and turning away a penalty shot.

There was that Bosc goal in the second, and a beautiful long shot from Steinbach forward Tyler Penner in the third that narrowed Portage’s lead to 3-2. But less than three minutes later the Terriers stretched the lead out again, this time with a Carson Perreaux marker. That would stand as the game-winner.

With just over six minutes left, Steinbach forward Dustin Loeppky finished a sharp two-on-one with Cole Smith by putting the puck into the Portage net. The Pistons put up a scrappy battle in the final minutes, trying anything to push the game into overtime, but the tying goal never came.

The final buzzer sounded. The Portage Terriers bench erupted, a sea of black and green jerseys spilling out onto the ice.

Now, their record-setting march continues. They’ll have a berth in the RBC Cup, thanks to their host status. So, how much damage can this bunch do against the rest of Canada’s best junior A clubs?

“I don’t know, and I’m not going to make any predictions,” Laforest said. “But I think it’s going to be a great time.”

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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