The Yellowhead Chiefs continue their pursuit of their first Manitoba AAA Midget Hockey League title since 1994 tonight when they visit the Winnipeg Wild in Game 1 of the best-of-five final.
The game, in Canadian Tire Arena at the MTS Iceplex in Winnipeg, begins at 7:45 p.m. The Iceplex is located next to Assiniboia Downs on the Perimeter Highway.
Chiefs head coach Craig Geekie said the Wild, who finished first in the league with a record of 35-6-0-0-3, are a formidable foe.
"They play a similar game to us," Geekie said. "They’re a puck possession team that plays fast and they’re pretty deep, and well coached with Paul (Krueger). They’ve won a lot of championships and they know how to play in these big games. It’s not going to be an easy series, it’s going to be a grind."
The teams split their four meetings this season, with the Chiefs winning 3-2 in Winnipeg on Nov. 12 and 7-5 in Shoal Lake on Nov. 20. In their final two meetings, the Wild won 6-3 in Shoal Lake on Feb. 4 and 7-1 in Winnipeg on Feb. 19 in the season finale for both teams.
Ryan Heino, a 17-year-old forward from Minnedosa, is second in team scoring in the playoffs with two goals and seven assists, a point behind Mackenzie Belinski. He said the wins against the Wild in November showed the Chiefs (30-6-1-2-5) the path to victory.
"They play very aggressive and they’re very skilled too," Heino said. "We just have to play our game, and be quick like we know we can play. In our defensive zone we’ll have to make sure that we have our man because they like to make different plays that normally other teams won’t even try because they’re not as skilled. If we play our man, we’ll be fine."
The Wild dispatched the Kenora Thistles in three games before being taken to five by the Eastman Selects in their semifinal series.
Yellowhead beat the Central Plains Capitals and Brandon Wheat Kings in straight games, but Geekie said both series were much closer than three-game sweeps might suggest. Five of the six games were decided by a single goal, and the Chiefs trailed by three goals in the other one.
If a concern did surface, the Chiefs were behind in two of the games, allowed the other team to claw back to tie in three of them and nearly blew a four-goal lead once, winning 4-3.
"I think that’s something we have to solidify, especially against the top team in the league," Geekie said. "Some of those leads, those were stretches where we happened to turn pucks over or had lapses or did some things that we’re not wanting to do and it ends up in the back of our net.
"Against a team like the Wild, that lead can quickly dissipate and put us behind the 8-ball. Against a team like that, it’s going to be tough in itself so any time we get a lead, we need to try and hold it."
Puck possession is key.
Geekie said the biggest difference in the wins in November and losses in February were the number of turnovers and quality of execution by his team.
"If you turn pucks over against the Wild, that’s something they thrive on," Geekie said. "If we limit those opportunities for them and continue with puck control, I feel we have a good chance."
The Wild have been led by Kyle Bettens, a prospect of the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings and the younger brother of current player Rylan. Kyle, Brandon’s third-round pick in the 2016 bantam draft, has seven goals and five assists in eight games.
Since the league was created in time for the 1985-86 season, Yellowhead has made it to the final three times, beating the Winnipeg Hawks in 1994, and losing to the Eastman Selects in 1989 and the Norman Northstars in 1996.
The Wild have won all six of their trips to the league finals, which came in 2005, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016. The Thrashers also have three wins in the last dozen years, giving the two Winnipeg teams nine of the last 12 title.
(It’s worth noting that the greater Edmonton area, which is larger, has seven teams in the Alberta league.)
Yellowhead captain Aidan Woodley, a 17-year-old defenceman from Strathclair, said his team is not intimidated by its first trip to the final in two decades.
"It’s just more hockey to us," Woodley said. "We’re happy with how we’ve done this year and we’re excited to get going."
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Game 1 — Tonight at 7:45 p.m., in Winnipeg.
Game 2 — Saturday at 7:30 p.m., in Shoal Lake.
Game 3 — Monday at 7 p.m., in Winnipeg.
Game 4 — Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., in Shoal Lake.
Game 5 — Friday at 7:15 p.m., in Winnipeg.