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Royal Knights on a quest for post-season success

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River East

The road has been a long one, but nothing good ever comes easy.

For the past few seasons, the River East Royal Knights have been rebuilding from the ground up, with the goal of bringing a Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League championship home for the first time in over 20 years. Last season, the Royal Knights made the post-season for the first time since the 2014-15 season before bowing out in five games to northeastern rivals the Transcona Railer Express in the first round.

“The group in the dressing room is one of the best I’ve seen as a player and a coach. You can tell that’s the vibe, that guys are genuinely caring for each other, on and off the ice,” Blake Bonni, head coach and former Royal Knights player, said. “We started from that, we’re building off that, and that’s how we plan to continue to move forward.”

Supplied photo by Bruce Fedyck The River East Royal Knights were jockeying to hold second place in the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League ahead of a Jan. 20 match-up against the Pembina Valley Twisters.

The Royal Knights were in third place in the 10-team loop, with an 18-6-3 record ahead of a Jan. 20 game vs. the Pembina Valley Twisters (result not available at press time). Meanwhile, the second-place St. Vital Junior Victorias (19-9-2) and the fourth-place Fort Garry/Fort Rouge Twins (17-10-1) are also jockeying for position behind the red-hot defending champions St. James Junior Canucks, who maintain a commanding hold on first place with a 25-2-1 record.

“We start playing from our end out, we focus on defence first. But there’s not one part of our game that we’re satisfied with,” Bonni said. “There are things we’re content with, but not satisfied. We want to just keep moving forward.”

Stellar goaltending from fourth-year tender Ashton Howarth, along with solid backup tending from Manny Minuk Jr., has the Royal Knights in with a second-best 3.44 goals against average through 26 games. In 16 starts, Howarth’s GAA is 3.26 and a .922 save percentage is second best in the league, while Minuk holds a 3.42 GAA in 10 starts.

“I’ve been playing 15 years in goal,” Howarth said. “I just think it’s back to work, playing another game. I enjoy the moment. It’s not going to last forever. I get to play with my buddies and try to win. That helps me focus.”

As a veteran and leader on the team, Howarth is impressed with the roster this season.

“Building chemistry in the room has been huge. Having that from the past and building it stronger this year has really shown,” Howarth said. “We have a fast game, faster with younger guys. A lot of skill base. The hockey IQ is there. We’re putting the puck in the net this year, which is winning us a lot of games.”

Supplied photo by Bruce Fedyck River East Royal Knights captain Ryden Fedyck passes the puck up to alternate captain Ryan Zalitach while goaltender Manny Minuk Jr. looks on during a recent game.

Indeed, the Royal Knights’ goals per game average of 4.22 is fourth best in the league, as is its penalty kill (80.9 per cent). One area of improvement during the final stretch of games and into the post-season would be the power play, which is only firing at 15.7 per cent, or eighth in the 10-team league.

“We’re playing a good team game, where everyone is contributing. We don’t just rely on a guy or two a night to win. We have guys who are filling in on the fourth line and checking role who have all elevated our game. Everybody is bringing something to every game,” Bonni said. “But we’re not satisfied with where we’re at right now. We’re looking to get better each game, each practice, and focusing internally.”

For complete, up-to-date results and schedule, visit mmjhl.ca

Sheldon Birnie

Sheldon Birnie
Community Journalist

Sheldon Birnie is a reporter/photographer for the Free Press Community Review. The author of Missing Like Teeth: An Oral History of Winnipeg Underground Rock (1990-2001), his writing has appeared in journals and online platforms across Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. A husband and father of two young children, Sheldon enjoys playing guitar and rec hockey when he can find the time. Email him at sheldon.birnie@canstarnews.com Call him at 204-697-7112

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