The St. James Jr. Canucks have blazed through the first half of their 45-game season, landing the team atop league standings.
The Canucks led the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League with a 21-1-3 record, good for 45 points, at the holiday break.
Canucks head coach Blair Mooney said numbers like these would have sent his team far ahead of its closest competitors during past seasons. But, with other teams putting up a tough fight, the standings are unstable.
The Transcona Railer Express trailed closely behind St. James Jr. Canucks with 44 points, followed by the third-place Pembina Valley Twisters with 35 points at press time.
Canucks forward Kurtis Luke was the MMJHL’s top scorer with 18 goals and 22 assists for 40 points ahead of the team’s Jan. 7 game vs. Pembina Valley.
Luke has had back-end help from defenceman Rory Neill, who has 11 goals and 20 assists for 31 points. Luke and Neill were both named MMJHL players of the month for December.
Last year Luke played for the Winnipeg Freeze in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. The 21-year-old had played for the Canucks before that.
"It’s my last season, and I’m enjoying it the most out of all of them," Luke said. "We’re a strong, fast team, and we average five goals a game, so it’s definitely a lot of fun."
This is Neill’s debut year with the Canucks. The 18-year-old St. James-raised athlete played for the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen last season. Neill said the transition to the MMJHL has been smooth, thanks to his new teammates.
"We’ve got a really good group of guys this year," Neill said. "Hopefully, we’ll get a championship, but it’s been awesome; the ride’s been super-fun. Hopefully, we can keep things rolling into the second half here."
Goalies Noah Gilbert and Liam Johnson have both been solid for the team. Gilbert has seen 1,047 minutes of ice time this season and has a save percentage of .912, and 2.58 goals against average.
"He’s an absolute stud," Luke said. "He leads the league in minutes played."
Johnson has tended the net for 478 minutes and has a save percentage of .886, with a 3.01 GAA.
Mooney said that the Canucks’ goals against numbers have dropped as the season has progressed, which is a major reason for the team’s success.
At the beginning of the season, Mooney figured that with a strong pair of goaltenders and a solid defensive corps, the St. James Jr. Canucks would need to focus its energy on its offence — carving out shots on net.
But game after game proved the forwards had no trouble keeping the puck in the attacking zone.
"We’ve been filling the net lots, which is a good thing," Mooney said. "We’ve got lots of balance throughout our lineup; lots of guys who can score for us."
The Canucks had 20 games remaining in the regular season at press time. In its first post-break game, the team faced off against the Pembina Valley on Jan. 7.
The Canucks had previously defeated the Twisters twice this season: first in a 5-4 shoot-out victory, and again 5-4 in a regulation win. The Twisters had countered with a 5-4 OT win.
Katlyn Streilein is a reporter/photographer for the Free Press Community Review. She can be reached by phone at 204-697-7132 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org