The games that matter are set to begin across the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. For the Neepawa Natives, opening night can’t arrive soon enough, as the team hopes to continue building off of its positive pre-season experience.
Neepawa finished MJHL exhibition play with a 3-3 record, which included player improvement being seen in every one of those games. Head coach Dustin Howden said watching first hand, the development of the roster, from a group of talented individuals into a collective unit, has been great to see.
“The coaching staff has been working very hard with [the players] on a few things, such as power-play for example. As we had more games under our belt, you could see the information that we’d work on in practice was settling into their minds and was becoming much more instinctive for them,” noted Howden. “The work ethic as well has been nice to see. When you work on your game and you start seeing those results, it’s a real confidence builder and you can tell, they’re getting confident about what they can do out there. There’s a feeling that we can skate with and compete with any team that’s out there in front of us.”
The Natives closed out the exhibition season with a pair of games against the Dauphin Kings. The first was on Friday, Sept. 16, in Dauphin, and saw Neepawa claim a dominant 6-1 win. The following night at the Yellowhead Centre, the Kings survived an onslaught of 62 shots to win 3-1. The matchup on Saturday, Sept. 17, would see Neepawa come close to securing more goals on several occasions, hitting the crossbar multiple times. The team also ran up against a spectacular performance by 19-year-old Dauphin goaltender Brandon Holtby. Howden said those two nights were a perfect example of how anything can happen from night to night.
“These types of games happen. We ran into a hot goaltender [on Saturday, Sept. 17]. Kudos to Holtby. He really stood on his head out there. Any other night, we’re going to get more than one goal off that amount of opportunities,” stressed Howden. “[Friday, Sept. 16] is an example of that. We had a similar game less than 24 hours earlier and were able to score six goals. All we can do is put it behind us. I’m still really proud of the guys and the effort they put in out there.”
The MJHL regular season will open for Neepawa at home on Friday, Sept. 23, versus the Winkler Flyers. The two teams played a pair of games during the exhibition schedule, each winning once. Howden said that they’re looking forward to challenging one of last season’s top teams and seeing exactly where the Neepawa Natives stand early on in the regular season.