By Dave Leaderhouse
The Nipawin Hawks put the brakes on a 28-year run between Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League championships on Tuesday when they edged the Estevan Bruins 2-1 in Game 7 of the Canalta Cup final.
Now they will be looking to end another 28-year drought when they face the Manitoba Junior Hockey League champion Steinbach Pistons in the Anavet Cup series that will determine the western representative at the RBC Cup in Chilliwack, B.C., in mid-May.
The Anavet Cup has been reinstituted this year after a six-year absence and the last time the Hawks competed for the title they prevailed over the Portage Terriers in 1990. That series went six games with Nipawin then going 2-2 in round-robin play at the Centennial Cup (a precursor to the RBC Cup) before falling to Vernon in the national semi-finals.
While a ticket to the RBC Cup is dangling in front of them, the Hawks have a tough opponent standing in their way as the Steinbach Pistons were runaway winners of the MJHL regular season and then suffered just four losses in the post-season enroute to claiming their second league title in six years.
In fact, the Pistons have been at or near the top of the MJHL for all of those six years as in addition to the two league titles they were finalists on two more occasions and semi-finalists in the other two campaigns.
Steinbach went 48-8-2-2 during the regular season to finish 17 points clear of the Virden Oil Capitals. In doing so they, by far, scored the most goals at 296 while allowing just 130 goals against, a number that was as many as 33 fewer than the next stingiest team. Their goal differential of 166 was almost double that of Virden and Portage showing that they are strong in both ends of the rink.
Nipawin, by comparison, also had the fewest goals against in the SJHL at 131 and their 232 goals scored was just a handful behind Estevan, but their differential, while substantial, paled to the number posted by the Pistons. Nipawin, however, did have a 30-game run during the season where they registered at least one point ultimately helping them post a 43-8-3-4 ledger.
Up front the Pistons are led by a pair of 20-year-olds as Bradley Schoonbaert and Drew Worrad led the club in both regular-season and playoff scoring. Schoonbaert had 91 points in 59 regular-season tilts to easily outdistance Worrad by 16 points, but the latter played in a dozen fewer games making their point-per-game ration almost identical. In the playoffs, Worrad had 18 points in the 16 games played while Schoonbaert was one back with 17.
The star of the Pistons team, however, is 17-year-old netminder Matthew Thiessen. Already committed to the University of Maine, Thiessen led the league in the regular season with a 2.06 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in 34 appearances while in the playoffs he posted a 1.60 GAA and .944 save percentage in 14 games.
Nipawin counters with Brandan Arnold and Josh McDougall offensively as that pair led the Hawks in both the regular season and playoffs while in goal Declan Hobbs has been the workhorse playing in all but 28 minutes of the successful run to the league championship.
The Pistons also have a name familiar to SJHL fans as Daniel McKitrick was a late-season acquisition and added some extra scoring punch to an already explosive offence. McKitrick played parts of two seasons for the Humboldt Broncos before bouncing around with a couple other teams and eventually landing in Steinbach to complete his junior career.
This series should be a close one as both teams have a lot of depth to back up the stars on their respective squads. It all gets underway on Friday in Steinbach with Game 2 to be played the next night, also in the Manitoba centre. The series will then shift back to Nipawin for three games beginning on Tuesday and reports have tickets being sold out in under 45 minutes guaranteeing a raucous crowd to help urge the Hawks onto the next step in their quest for a national championship.
Of course the emotions of the Humboldt Bronco tragedy are still very raw, but the power of healing is in the game and there should be some great games in the very near future.