It was supposed to be a rebuilding year at Stride Place in Portage, but someone forgot to tell head coach Blake Spiller and the Terriers, who rolled to another Manitoba Junior Hockey League regular-season title.
The Terriers open another MJHL post-season Friday with designs on the franchise's fourth Turnbull Cup championship in five years.
"Blake's been at this for quite some time and he's got a lot of playoff games under his belt and he's won some championships," says Taylor Harnett, head coach of the Wayway Wolverines, who will face top-seeded Portage in the quarter-final round.
"He knows what it takes. You have to have the right recipe for success."
That recipe, according to Terriers centre Reilly Funk, is pretty simple. Spiller trusts his players and insists on playing four lines, which Portage usually employs to devastating effect in the playoffs. Still, the 2018-19 season was supposed to be a transition year as Spiller rebuilt his roster in preparation for hosting the RBC Cup national championship in the spring of 2020.
Older personnel was moved out and younger players took their places, yet somehow Portage finished in top spot, six points clear of the second-place Swan Valley Stampeders, with a massive plus-127 goal differential.
"We got good efforts from our young guys and our veterans were the leaders they needed to be so were pleasantly surprised," Spiller says.
But regular-season dominance will mean little if the Terriers come out flat or complacent Friday in Game 1 against the Wolverines.
"They've been playing really good lately and it's tough to play in that barn," Funk says.
"Their fans are good and they'll be coming out in swarms in Wayway. We did sweep them and I know we're the first seed and they're the eighth seed but if you look at it like that, you're putting yourself behind the eight-ball already. You've gotta go in and play the game you've played all year long and I think the guys in our dressing room understand that."
Here's a preview of the four quarter-final series to begin the playoffs:
Portage Terriers (1) vs. Wayway Wolverines (8)
The Wolverines (28-27-2-3) are making their first post-season appearance since 2015-16 and Harnett says his team is itching to challenge the powerful Terriers (46-11-2-1).
Since taking over in November of 2017, Harnett guided the club to a difficult 8-48-3-1 record in 2017-18 — 43 points out of the eighth and final playoff spot. However, a winning culture has begun to take hold, especially with the addition of defencemen Karstin McDonald (Yorkton, SJHL) and Jack Tonnies from Portage.
"We've come a long way since Jan. 10," says Harnett. "We've made some moves and in February we've had pretty good record (winning nine of 13 games). I can tell you one thing that's different is our mindset. We struggled when we had to battle back when we got down early in games and struggled with keeping leads. It's something we worked on mentally."
The Wolverines will be hoping they'll have over-age forward Jake Bestul (bruised torso) in the lineup but his status remained uncertain earlier this week. Bestul is the club's captain and offensive catalyst.
Meanwhile, the Terriers are waiting on injured forwards Ty Barnstable and Scott Mickoski, who are questionable to start the series while another veteran, 21-goal scorer Braden Billaney, has 17 games remaining on an 18-game suspension he was assessed for a checking-from-behind major on Feb. 24 in a game against the Winkler Flyers. Flyers defenceman Drake Burgin suffered a concussion on the play.
"That's a big part of our lineup and a big loss," says Spiller, who is hopeful the length of the suspension will be reduced on appeal.
On a roster blessed with 13 players who finished with double-digit goal totals, the Terriers got the added bonus of defenceman Sam Huston's mid-season return from Kootenay of the WHL and 20-year-old forward Chase Brakel's homecoming. Brakel left Cornell University after Christmas and solidified Portage's win-now approach.
Swan Valley Stampeders (2) vs. Dauphin Kings (7)
The Stampeders (42-13-3-2), ravaged with a flu bug that kept up to seven regulars out of the lineup in the final weeks of the regular season, are expected to be close to healthy when they open at home Friday night.
But the teams, separated by less than two hours on the highway and 25 points in the standings, could be in for the long haul.
"They've played us extremely hard all year," says Swan Valley GM and head coach Barry Wolff. "They play gritty and in your face and they generate a lot of offence from the back end, with (Riley) Shamray and (Cole) DeKoninck. And they have two good goalies. They have success by committee. They come hard and they come in waves, so that's how they get things done."
Dauphin (29-25-3-3) managed only one win in six head-to-head meetings this season but took the Stamps to overtime three times. The Kings struggled to contain Swan Valley's high-octane offence, which included three of the league's top five scorers in Josh Tripp, Bradly Goethals and Matthew Osadick, who combined for 99 goals and 226 points during the regular season.
"They've got a lot of talent up front — Tripp, Osadick, Goethals and (Brian) Harris," says Kings head coach and GM Doug Hedley. "A very offensive-minded team. We feel we can compete with them, it's maybe a matter of getting the goaltending to step up. Our big thing is we have to control their speed and we have to make it tough to play against."
"We're going in as underdogs and every game is going to have to be an A-grade type of effort," You just can't take a shift off. I mean, we had these guys 4-2 with about 2 1/2 minutes left last time in Dauphin and ended up losing in overtime."
The most significant injury news concerns Dauphin forward Kolby Johnson, who was cut on his thigh by a skate blade during a recent game and won't start the series.
Steinbach Pistons (3) vs. Winnipeg Blues (6)
The Pistons (39-17-4-0) are a tough spot, facing one of the league's hottest teams with a serious manpower shortage in their own dressing room.
Steinbach had six key performers finish the regular season on the sidelines: forwards Brendan Martin, Nicholas Labossiere, Riley Vatour and Brendan Westbrook and blue-liners Declan Graham and Troy Williams.
Graham will not start the series; Martin, who finished seventh in league scoring with 57 points, is possible for Friday's Game 1.
"It's difficult to win this time of year, obviously, and you'd like to be as healthy as possible," says Steinbach GM and head coach Paul Dyck. "That being said, I like the compete I've seen from our group. We had only nine forwards this past Saturday and it's been an opportunity for our younger guys to gain some valuable experience."
One up-and-comer is rookie right-winger Kyle Bettons, who has 16 points, including six goals, in his last 15 games playing on a line with Easton Bennett and Max Neill.
"Kyle's been playing extremely well for us," says Dyck. "He's been trending in a very positive direction, I'd say, since Christmas. It's an adjustment when you jump into junior hockey. He's been someone we've leaned on very heavily."
The Blues (31-22-2-5) and Pistons met in the second round last spring, with Steinbach prevailing in six games en route to a Turnbull Cup championship.
Adding seasoned forwards Tony Apetagon, who was third in league scoring with 29 goals and 74 points, and James Maxwell at the trade deadline and getting defenceman Michael Ladyman back from the WHL's Spokane Chiefs has helped transform the Blues.
Apetagon has been deadly on a line with Brayden Foreman and Ty Naaykens, while the threesome of Nathan Adrian, Cody Behun and Kelton Sunderland draws the toughest checking assignments.
"We've gotta make sure we're not just a one-trick pony with Tony," said Blues GM and head coach Billy Keane. "So we have to make sure everyone else is contributing and our power play is effective."
Winnipeg's Jeremy Link, named the league's top goaltender, can steal games, but the Pistons answer with the capable Matt Radomsky, who finished in a tie with Link in first team all-star voting.
"Brendan Martin and Guy Williams are guys you've really gotta pay attention to," said Keane, "but if we do our thing and prepare the way we need to prepare and play our game, I think the rest sorts itself out."
Selkirk Steelers (4) vs. Virden Oil Capitals (5)
The Oil Caps (31-21-4-4) were in a serious rebuild mode early in the season and had a record to match, going 3-9-1-3 through their first 16 games. So how do you explain going 28-12-3-1 the rest of the way to finish with a No. 5 playoff seed?
"It was a group we had to be patient to start with and we brought in a 20-year-old forward (Blake Sidoni from BCHL Trail) that helped our top six out quite a bit and he went on to finish top 20 in league scoring, " says Caps GM and head coach Troy Leslie.
"Guys like (forwards Kolton) Kanaski and (Ben) Dalke and (defenceman) Tristen Cross have really picked up the pace and we're getting good secondary scoring as well. (Hunter) Cloutier, (Josh) Belchor and (Jack) Einarson have kinda come alive for us."
Virden also got centre Jesse Mistlebacher back from the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors and added 20-year-old forward Tanner McKechnie and blue-liner Jacob Evans prior to the trade deadline.
Led by Sidoni-Kanaski-Dalke, one of the MJHL's most dangerous lines, do the Caps have enough to repeat last season's five-game first-round win over the Steelers?
The teams split the six-game season series but Steelers head coach Nick Lubimiv admits limiting Virden's deadly power play is crucial.
"Their special teams are really good," Lubimiv says. "Their power play is right at the top of the league, so if you're undisciplined they certainly make you pay and they've made us pay in the past."
Injuries have taken a toll on the Steelers but the return of over-age centre Ryan Sokolowski, who missed seven weeks with a shoulder injury, could tip the series.
Sokolowski, the club's captain, has played only one game since the trade deadline formed the club's top line with Brett Namaka and 34-goal man Nate Halverson. However, Namaka is out with an upper-body injury and is unlikely to play in the opening round.
Meanwhile, defenceman Wayde Johannesson has been a stud for Selkirk since being acquired from Dauphin and logs between 22 and 25 minutes per game. Selkirk's Zach Bennett and Virden's Dalton Dosch are the go-to men in net.
"He's been very good," Lubimiv says of Bennett. "Even earlier in the year when we were giving up five or six, it wasn't because of goaltending. He's a No. 1 guy. For an 18-year-old, he handles the responsibility really well."
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Between periods of Dauphin's MJHL regular-season finale in Virden Saturday night, Kings head coach Doug Hedley received a telephone call he couldn't haven't prepared for.
The news was devastating: Mike Tivers, the father of Kings defenceman Leeam Tivers, had died suddenly of a heart attack in his hometown of Abbotsford, B.C.
Hedley, not wanting Leeam to inadvertently find out via social media, quickly delivered the news in the most sensitive way possible.
Leeam, an 18-year-old in his first season with the Kings, decided to honour his father by finishing the game.
"Here's an 18-year-old that's crying between shifts and playing hard on the ice," said Hedley. "He wanted to play for his dad."
Leeam Tivers returned to to B.C. the next day but vowed to return to his team for the post-season.
Originally, a funeral service was to be delayed while Leeam, intending to return for Friday's Game 1, planned to honour his father's memory by finishing the club's playoff run. However, those plans changed when when Tiver was diagnosed with mononucleosis on Thursday.
Tivers is now expected to remain at home but the team will commemorate Mike Tivers by wearing memorial stickers on their helmets.