By Scott Billeck – @scottbilleck
It wasn’t the series the Selkirk Steelers or their fans envisioned. The phrase “any team, any night” is one passed around in hockey circles and was put on full display in the Winnipeg Blues dominating performance over the Steel Town Boys.
A 34-point gap separated the two teams during the regular season. The Steelers rode a mid-season 20-game winning streak — a franchise record while tying an MJHL record at the same time — to a league-best 49-7-4 record, good for 102 points and the only team to eclipse the century mark this season.
The Blues finished with 68 points thanks to a 31-23-6 record. They squeaked into the postseason. Barely. The Blues had to play a best-of-three series just to make it into the playoffs, one they swept 2-0 over the Winkler Flyers, setting up an unfavourable matchup with the league’s best team in the Steelers.
“Hats off to the Blues, they outplayed us, they outworked us; they were harder than us,” said Steelers head coach Ryan Smith. “We were a little bit soft I thought. Our skilled guys were pushed off the puck and it wasn’t the regular season; it was very evident there was one team ready for the playoff mode and I don’t think we were.”
The series was close if you forget about Game 1. Winnipeg came into the Selkirk Recreation Complex and tuned the Steelers 5-0.
“I think we got caught off guard in Game 1 really bad and they were all over us,” said Smith. “I don’t think we ever recovered from that. Part of our success in the regular season may have hurt us; we had never faced adversity, never lost more than two in a row and never felt that we were outplayed.
“I think we were a little bit of a deer in the headlights.”
Game 2, 3, 4 were all decided by one goal with the Blues winning Game 2 and 3 in overtime and Selkirk clawing out a victory to keep the series alive in Game 4 with a 1-0 shutout. But Tuesday nights Game 5 was all Blues, all the time in a 4-1 win to clinch the series.
“It’s obviously very disappointing, expectations were a lot higher,” said Steelers’ captain Joel Messner. “The Blues played a heavy game. All credit to them, they outplayed us, outclassed us. Their goaltending was very stellar and their defence was solid, we couldn’t generate that much.”
It was a somber scene after the game. Messner was reluctant to leave the ice when the final hands were shaken while various other steelers shed tears while starting into the emptiness of the arena.
The 20-year-old Messner is heading to play for the University of Nebraska-Omaha, an NCAA Division 1 school, in the fall. But the excitements of his future prospects were put on hold Tuesday.
“It’s obviously very exciting, but I will take this season and learn from it,” said Messner. “It’s motivation for the summer and the next season – I never want to feel this feeling again.”
The Steelers go into the offseason knowing they are losing some veteran leadership. The MJHL’s leading scorer, Parker Thomas, as well as the aforementioned Messner and 3o-goal scorer Erik Pushka are all finished the Junior A circuit.
“We got some strong guys coming up,” said Smith. “It will be a little bit younger, a little bit feistier. We lose a lot of skill, a lot of veteran leadership – our captain and ten 20-year-olds.
“At crunch time we need to be a little deeper, a little stronger. With the guys coming up, I think we can do that.”