When the Manitoba Junior Hockey League playoffs began, not many people would have picked the Winnipeg Blues to win the Turnbull Trophy championship.
After all, they finished the regular season with a more-than-respectable 31-23-6 record for 68 points, good for fourth place in the ultra-competitive Addison Division.
After dispatching the Winkler Flyers in the division survivor series, they faced the powerful Selkirk Steelers in the division semifinals, a team which finished with 49 wins and were 34 points ahead of the Blues in the standings. Selkirk was also the second-ranked team in the country at seasons end.
But the Blues shocked Selkirk with a 5-0 victory in game one and never looked back, beating the Steelers in five games.
“I thought our team competed very hard in a very good division, Winkler included,” said Blues head coach and GM Don MacGillivray.
“If anything, we may have caught Selkirk offguard at the start, just because, mentally, you think, ‘there’s no way we can lose this. We finished 34 points ahead of them.’ I think that’s probably what happened.”
After such a convincing win in game one, any doubt the Blues had that they could compete with the MJHL’s top team quickly evaporated.
“And the rest speaks for itself,” MacGillivray said.
The Blues entered the 2013-14 regular season with a solid backend, with three experienced 20-year-old defencemen and 20-year-old goaltender Byron Spriggs, who was named playoff MVP after posting a 14-3 record with a 1.67 GAA and .926 save percentage.
“And then we had some unknowns. We had some younger guys that we weren’t sure how they would handle playing every day and playing key minutes,” MacGillivray added.
“And Byron gave us that stability early in the season.”
Up front the Blues had to replace their top seven scorers from last season. So MacGillivray set out to build a workmanlike team, which could score by committee.
“And that’s exactly what ended up happening. We had good play from our veteran players all year long,” he said.
MacGillivray felt his team would be in the mix with Selkirk and the defending league champion Steinbach Pistons. But the Portage Terriers exceeded everyone’s expectations, finishing 12 points ahead of Winnipeg. So when talk began about who would win the Addison Division come playoff time, the Blues were flying below everyone’s radar.
“They were all talking Portage, Steinbach and Selkirk. And that was a good thing for our team. It just allowed us to play and work and we developed good habits when we hit the playoffs.”
The younger players on the team developed well over the course of the season. It was questioned whether 16-year-old forward Jackson Keane, son of former NHL star Mike Keane, could play both ends of the rink, but he came into his own and was a factor in the second half of the season, according to his head coach.
Another pair of youngsters, Geordie Keane and Liam Kroeker, graduated from the Winnipeg Wild AAA midget program and continued their development, as did Clay Tait from the Interlake AAA midget program. Tait was linemates with two 20-year-olds and contributed offensively as a 17-year-old. Scott Rowswell came to the Blues from the Winnipeg high school hockey system and ended up tied for third on the team with 19 goals.
“We definitely got contributions from our younger guys. You hate to single out one player, because there wasn’t really one player. It was more of a group effort,” MacGillivray said.
Come the postseason, the play of Spriggs was obviously a big part of the team’s success, as was its special teams. Winnipeg’s power play connected for 22 goals on 80 chances for a 27.5 per cent success rate, tops in the league. The penalty kill was third in the league in the playoffs, allowing just eight goals in 57 chances (85.96 per cent).
“Really that’s what it comes down to. Those are pretty good numbers for that time of year,” MacGillivray noted.
Defensively, the Blues allowed just 29 goals in 17 games, including just seven to the Steelers, who led the league in the regular season with 243 goals.
“So we were averaging less than two goals a game against. It gives you a chance to be in every game and a chance to win. The games we lost, we lost 1-0, 2-1 and 2-1. And that’s it,” MacGillivray said.
When it comes to the 2014 Crescent Point Energy Western Canada Cup, MacGillvray hopes his team can continue its strong play of the postseason.
“You never know once you win, if that’s enough for your guys or if they want to continue to play,” he said.
“I know Dauphin will be very tough at home. At the end of the day, if we can play well and Dauphin plays well, the main thing is we want to represent our league well. I have a lot of respect for Marlin (Murray, Kings head coach and GM) and his group and how they play. We want to show well for our league and that’s the key.”
MacGillvray realizes neither the Blues nor Kings will be considered favourites at the Western Canada Cup, but if they play well, they can both compete against the rest of the competition.
“In a short-term tournament. It’s not how many games you win, it’s which games you win. We’ll just try to take it one game at a time,” he said.