Fans at the Yellowhead Centre saw what might be a preview of the first round of the MJHL playoffs on Wednesday, Mar. 1, as the Neepawa Natives faced the Steinbach Pistons. With their post season life on the line, Neepawa came up big by defeating the Pistons 3-1. This win, combined with the Swan Valley Stampeders OT loss to the Portage Terriers, now has Neepawa tied for the eighth and final playoff spot (19-33-6. 44 points)
The Pistons, who are the top team in the MJHL, played an extremely physical game and kept pressuring for scoring opportunities in the Natives’ defensive zone. That effort paid off late in the first, as the Pistons scored on a power-play chance when Jordan Bochinski scored his 19th goal of the season. That provided Steinbach with a 1-0 lead after the first 20 minutes.
Neepawa would tie the game early in the second period, as Riley Vautour put in a strong effort in front of the Piston’s net and put away one on the power-play at the 14:33 mark. For the remainder of the period both team traded chances. Late in the second though, Neepawa fell into problems and had to kill off consecutive penalties to close out the period. Fortunately, a strong performance from goaltender Evan Robert and the collective efforts of the players in front of him ensured that Steinbach could not reclaim the lead.
In the third, Neepawa hit the ice with a renewed sense of focus and determination. That paid off almost immediately, as Justin Metcalf put one in just a minute into the period on a tremendous fast break. A few minutes later, Metcalf added another to give the Natives a two goal cushion. Over the final ten minutes of regulation, Steinbach generated constant pressure on Neepawa, as they searched for another goal. Robert and the team in front of him, however, came up big when it mattered most. A little bit of luck aided them as well though, as one Pistons’ chance in the final moments of play hit the post and then took a strange journey across the edge of the goal line. Fortunately, that shot stayed out of the back of the net, allowing Neepawa to close out the game with the 3-1 win.
Evan Robert’s 32 save performance proved to be huge for Neepawa in this must win scenario. After the game though, Robert gave all the credit to his teammates.
“It wasn’t really me per se, as it was the guys. They were flying around out there on the ice. They were clearing away everything in front of me. Any rebounds were quickly cleared out and they got in front of the puck and blocked. I can’t even count just how many shots Josh [Blondeau] blocked. I made the first save and they cleared out the rebounds. It all came down to that and we persevered,” Robert said.
Head coach Dustin Howden said there wasn’t much to add afterwards, as this team just finding ways to win right now.
“This was our sixth straight home win and it was against the best team in the league. Home ice has really turned into a huge advantage for us as of late. It’s exciting, but at the same time, [the players] want more. They’re not satisfied with just a solid effort at the end of the year. They want the playoffs and believe that they have that opportunity in their own hands,” stated Howden. “We have Dauphin next. The Kings, I’m sure would like nothing more than to knock us out of the playoff chase. They played us tough last month (a 4-3 Neepawa win on Wednesday, Feb. 15), so this is not one to look past. It’s a big game and we have to continue to play well. To put it bluntly, we have to keep winning.”
The final two games of the regular season are both at the Yellowhead Centre. First, the Natives will face the Kings on Friday, Mar. 3. Then on Sunday, Mar. 4, Neepawa will take on Swan Valley.