‘Refuse to lose’ Mudbugs heading to HTJHL finals

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No one would have blamed the Red River Mudbugs for giving up on their season. After falling down 3-1 in their Hanover-Tache Junior Hockey League (HTJHL) semi-final matchup against the Springfield Xtreme, the Mudbugs battled back to force a game seven March 12, only to fall behind again 3-1 just one minute into the third period.

Despite the deficit, Red River stormed back to tie the game, then trailed again 4-3 before forcing overtime, where captain Braden Hildebrand scored a spectacular goal to send the Mudbugs to the HTJHL finals against Steinbach.

“We got a new motto, it’s ‘refuse to lose,’” Mudbugs coach Bill Dowswell said after the game.

“Everybody’s bought in to the (motto). Everybody plays hard, nobody gives up on this team.”

The Mudbugs have faced elimination in six games this post-season, winning all of them.

Hildebrand’s overtime marker was a spectacular individual effort. The forward is the captain and leading scorer for the Mudbugs. After entering the offensive zone, he protected the puck while skating behind the Xtreme’s net.

Undeterred by the harassment of Springfield defenders, Hildebrand kept possession of the puck all the way back to the blueline, before cutting down the middle of the ice and deking around goaltender Matt Slezak to set off jubilant celebrations inside the St Jean arena.

“Honestly, I was kind of looking for the pass the whole time,” Hildebrand said on his overtime goal.

“(I) couldn’t see anything so I drove the net and Bryson (Loewen) made a good play, got in the way of their one guy and I put it in.”

Hildebrand has put together an incredible season. Not only did he take the regular season scoring crown, but he is also on pace to finish the playoffs as the league’s leading scorer as well, putting up an incredible 27 points in 12 games played.

“He’s such a great kid,” Dowswell said, praising Hildebrand’s work off the ice as a leader.

“I’ve had the pleasure of watching him since high school, it’s great.”

Hildebrand, true to form, was quick to heap praise on his line-mates when asked what has been the key to his success this season.

“(Loewen) is the best defensive forward in the league, so he takes care of our own end,” Hildebrand said, also mentioning Andrew Dyck’s play.

“It’s mostly those two guys. I just get in the right position and put them in. I don’t have to do much work compared to them.”

There nearly wasn’t a game seven for Red River to win. During game six in Oakbank, with the game tied 3-3 in the third period, the Xtreme appeared to score a go-ahead goal with only minutes left to play in the game. The referees ruled the puck did not enter the net, leaving the door open for Dawson Friesen’s game winner with one minute to go.

Another lucky moment came in game seven, when Red River’s starting goalie, Connor Parago, was forced to leave the game for a couple minutes with the score 2-1 when one of his skate blades came off. Cole Einarson stepped in and had to make two saves cold off the bench in relief as Parago got repairs.

“(Einarson) hasn’t played in over a month,” Dowswell said.

“That was huge… That’s part of the team, everybody fills in when needed… I’m proud of these guys.”

Red River will be in tough during the HTJHL finals. The Steinbach Huskies have been nearly unstoppable this season, finishing with only two regular season losses, and a 4-1 semi-final series victory against Niverville. Although one of those losses came at the hands of the Mudbugs, a 4-2 win in November.

“We’ll take the underdog role, we’ll go with it,” Dowswell said, laughing.

“These guys have been clutching and scrapping away.”

Game one of the series was completed on March 15 after press time, with game two and four in St Jean March 17/21 (8 p.m.) and game three in Steinbach March 19 (7 p.m.). The rest of the potential seven-game series has yet to be scheduled.

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