The St. Paul’s Crusaders reached into their large array of offensive weaponry and came away with their third consecutive Milk AAAA Provincial High School Boys Hockey Championship on Monday night.
Tournament MVP Michael Lee broke a 1-1 tie with less than five minutes remaining and Grade 12 forward Matt Major fired a hat trick, including the game’s opening goal and two insurance markers in the third period (the capper into an empty net), to lift the Crusaders to a 4-1 triumph over the Sturgeon Heights Collegiate Huskies at Bell MTS Iceplex.
Major, who returned to the St. Paul’s lineup for the second-last game of the regular season after a lengthy layoff due to a concussion, played in only nine games, but was in top form during the biggest game of the year. Naturally, he was thrilled with the outcome, his second provincial title in as many years.
The Crusaders also beat the Huskies in the best-of-three Winnipeg High School Hockey League final earlier this month.
"Especially in a game like this where I was a senior and I’ve been out all year with a concussion," Major said. "It was really nice to come back."
Major got the Crusaders off to a strong start, intercepting a Huskies outlet pass at the blue-line before walking in and rifling a shot past Sturgeon Heights goaltender Randy Bjornson 4:24 into the first period.
"We knew they like to go up the middle and go for stretch passes, so we were clogging up the middle, picking off those passes," Major said.
Lee’s winner was a crushing blow for the Huskies, who had rallied after being outshot 13-2 in the opening period. Lee, a defenceman who was also named winner of the players’ choice award as the tournament’s top performer, drifted a power-play point shot through traffic and past a startled Bjornson, who was screened on the sequence.
"When I shot it, luckily, (the defenceman) passed the goalie and blocked his vision and it went right in the net," said Lee, who has played with defenceman Mac Rice and goaltender Eric Samyn on three straight provincial titleists. "It was a big relief."
Added Huskies captain Mack Whitely: "It was a tough shot, he gets screened. It’s tough to give it up, but it’s a close game. We played our hearts out. We didn’t start well, but we came back hard and we could’ve been up a couple of goals. He made some big saves and we missed chances. It’s tough to lose, but we’re proud of ourselves. Nobody thought we’d make it this far and we did."
Zachary Greenwood tied the game 1-1 early in the second period and the No. 2-ranked Huskies had their chances to take a lead. Shortly thereafter, Cayden Onagi was stymied by Samyn on a breakaway and Ethan Robson clanked another opportunity off the post.
"That’s the game you had to play," Sturgeon Heights head coach Tyler Metcalfe said.
"They stormed us pretty hard right at the beginning. We weathered the storm. A couple of little mistakes, that’s what that team does — they capitalize on mistakes. At the end of the day, I thought we responded great. We generated a ton of great scoring opportunities, but at the end of the day, sometimes you need a little bit of luck."
After the early shot deficit, the Huskies outshot St. Paul’s 22-15 the rest of the way.
"We knew they were a good team, they’re a very good team," Lee said. "We had to play them hard. We just worked hard and got it done."
In the end, the Huskies were limited by their numbers. Forward Matthew Mason-Vandel was suspended following a match penalty assessed in Saturday’s semifinal win over the Transcona Titans.
"Very proud. What else can you say about a team that’s played pretty much the entire playoffs with 11 skaters?" Metcalfe said.
"Even tonight, two of our guys go down, so we’re down to 11 again. They’re absolutely bagged. They left it out there. Obviously they’re crushed right now, but looking back, they’ll be very proud of what they did. We certainly are as a coaching staff. It was a pretty amazing effort."
NOTEWORTHY: Tournament all-stars, in addition to MVP Lee, included forwards Ryan Ostermann (Sturgeon Heights), Lenny Baranyk (St. Paul’s) and Ethan Lewis (St. Paul’s), defenceman Mack Whitely (Sturgeon Heights) and goaltender Samyn (St. Paul’s)... Samyn finished 23 saves. Sturgeon Heights’ Bjornson had 24... The Crusaders went 1 for 3 on the power play while the Huskies were scoreless in four chances.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.