Photo by Martin Warner
It was very fitting that the Neepawa Natives had to rally from behind to defeat the Swan Valley Stampeders, as this team has made a habit recently of pulling off last minute miracles.
After trailing 2-0 in the first period, Neepawa exploded for five goals in the second and were able to hold on for a 6-3 win. The victory secured eighth place in the standings for the Natives and ensured them their first appearance in the MJHL playoffs since the 2009-2010 season.
This time last month, the playoffs may have seemed unlikely to even the most ardent Natives fans, as they had just 12 wins on the year. In their final 12 games, however, the team went on a 9-2-1 run, which included an eight game home winning streak. That final home victory was the one that clinched post season play.
For the nearly 1,000 fans that packed the Yellowhead Arena for the final regular season game, the contest didn’t start as they’d hoped, as Swan Valley scored just 1:40 into regulation. A second Stamps goal followed up at 13:59.
In the second period, a pair of Swan Valley penalties turned the tide of the game. With a two man advantage, Ashton Anderson scored his first of the evening. 50 seconds later, Jordan Martin followed with another power-play marker to tie things up at 2-2. That seemed to reinvigorate the team, as they put away three more in quick succession. Justin Metcalf scored on a great individual effort. Then, captain Reigan Buchanan scored off a Skyler Thorsteinson pass. To top off a tremendous second period, Ashton Anderson batted the puck out of the air off a crazy bounce off the glass. With 20 minutes remaining in the regulation, Neepawa seemed to have control.
Swan Valley came out aggressively in the final frame, knowing exactly what was at stake. They threw everything they had at the Neepawa net, but Tyler Gutenberg stood tall when it mattered most. Neepawa was able to retaliate near the mid-point of the period, with a Nolan Richards goal. Swan Valley replied with their third goal, but were unable to climb back into the game as the Natives won 6-3, sending the majority of fans home ecstatic.
After the game, Reigan Buchanan said this win was amazing.
“To come back being down 2-0 and score five [goals] unanswered. That’s phenomenal, I’ve never seen that in a game with the Neepawa Natives before,” said Buchanan.
The 20-year-old, who is playing his final year of MJHL eligibility, added that this has some added meaning to him on a personal level.
“This means everything to me. I haven’t had a playoff appearance in my four years here. It’s special for me. And to make it with this group of guys just gives it added significances. They have worked so hard in the second half of the season. In late December, I believe, we were 12 points out of the playoffs, but the guys just didn’t give up. They deserved this.”
Head coach Dustin Howden said the entire coaching staff is extremely proud of what the players accomplished in the final month of the season. He attributes the team’s year-end success to the players finding their identity.
“We’re proud of the guys. It’s been a long journey. It wasn’t an easy one. But we’re really happy with where we’re at right now. These guys grew, both on the ice and off it, as players and as people, as the year progressed,” Howden said. “The character we have in that room. The guys have shown an eagerness to learn and improve themselves. Be good citizens in the community. You couldn’t ask for a better group of guys.”
The next challenge for Neepawa will be the Steinbach Pistons in the first round of the MJHL playoffs. Game one will be in Steinbach on Friday, Mar. 10. Game two will be at the Yellowhead Arena in Neepawa on Sunday, Mar. 12. Start time is set for 6:30 p.m.