The Christmas break appears to have invigorated the Neepawa Natives, as the team closed out 2016 with their best on-ice performance of the season. Lead by a four point effort from 20-year-old Reigan Buchanan (two goals – two assists), Neepawa topped the Swan Valley Stampeders on Dec. 30, by the score of 6-2. Affiliate player Mackenzie Belinski added a pair of assists in his first game of the year in a Natives uniform.
The game, played at the Yellowhead Centre, saw Neepawa get off to a tremendous start, outshooting the Stamps in the first period by a 19-8 margin. On top of that, they put three goals past goaltender Connor Slipp in the first 20 minutes. Brad Marshall opened things up just 7:10 into the first. Zach Johnson followed that up with his fourth goal of the year at the mid-way point of the period. Swan replied with one of its own shortly after the Johnson marker, but Justin Metcalf reclaimed the two goal advantage before the end of the first. This was Metcalf’s 22nd goal and 33rd point of the season.
In the second, Swan Valley caught Neepawa a bit flat footed, as the Stamps put one past Tyler Gutenberg just 18 seconds into play. Fortunately, Neepawa was able to quickly shake that off and scored just 1:15 later, as Reigan Buchanan secured his first of the night. A few minutes later, Buchanan had another chance as he was given a penalty shot. He took full advantage of the opportunity, with his second goal of the period. That provided the home side a solid three goal cushion heading into the final period.
A power-play goal in the third by Ashton Anderson would be the final goal of the evening and provided Neepawa with the solid 6-2 victory. This regulation win was an important one in the standings, as Neepawa (10-22-2 – 22 points) attempts to chase down Swan Valley (12-19-3 – 27 points) for the final playoff spot in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League standings.
After the game, Neepawa coach Dustin Howden complemented his roster for putting in such a strong effort after the extended Christmas break.
“We’ve been pushing hard all year and sometimes, just a break can refresh the body and the mind. The guys really came back after the break really positive. We had four practices [before the Dec. 30 game]. They were really good. Sometimes just a break between games is needed to get away from things. Kudos to our guys. They came back in shape and focused.” said Howden.
Neepawa’s power-play went 1-for-5 on the night, while their penalty kill proved to be extremely effective, limiting the Stampeders chances with the man-advantage. Howden said the team kept Swan Valley from putting together any type of momentum on the power-play, which was a huge confidence builder, as the game progressed.
“We got a power-play goal tonight, while also limiting [Swan Valley] to very few opportunities themselves on the power-play,” Howden added. “[Swan Valley] had very few chances with the extra man and the opportunities they did create, they couldn’t capitalize on. That’s because our defence was able to clear out the front of the net, allowing Tyler [Gutenberg] clear view of any shots sent his way. The forwards as well, back-checked and did their part in their own zone.”
Howden closed out the night commending forwards Reigan Buchanan and Mackenzie Belinski for having exceptional nights.
“Reigan Buchanan had an outstanding game. As a 20 year-old, he really wants to lead by example for these guys. No better way to do that than on the scoreboard.” Howden said “Mackenzie had a good game out there as well. He’s a good hockey player. Smooth, smart out there on the ice. He had a couple points out there and almost had a couple goals well. He had some good plays out there. Just in general, the AP’s we’ve had play for us this year, they’ve been outstanding for us.”
Neepawa will hope to keep that momentum going on Friday, Jan. 6, when they travel to Selkirk to take on the Steelers.