Ty Dilello – The Niverville Citizen
The Niverville Nighthawks accomplished the primary goal of their inaugural season, which was to qualify for the playoffs. Now they have a new goal: to give the MJHL’s league-leading Portage Terriers all they can handle in their first-round series, which gets underway on Friday night.
“It was important to us when this thing started a year and a half ago that we wanted to bring a competitive team to Niverville,” says Nighthawks assistant general manager Mike McAulay. “We just didn’t want to come in and limp around the league, so it was important to us that we found the right players to be competitive from the get-go. Being a year-one playoff team was always the goal. And we want to set that as the bar going forward that that’s the minimum standard for us.”
In qualifying for the postseason, Cech and his staff are especially happy for the 20-year-olds on the team who will now conclude their junior hockey careers in the playoffs as opposed to the regular season.
They are also ecstatic that their fans in Niverville and the surrounding area will get to experience MJHL playoff hockey for the very first time.
“We’ve had some epic comebacks and had some epic letdowns this season,” says head coach Kelvin Cech. “We’ve always shown resiliency, and we’re going to need that against Portage, as they’re a great hockey club. The mindset changes because we’re now focussing on playing just one team for a series. We’re just trying to win one game on Friday night and go from there. We have a different focus every day in practice this week on things we want to attack. And we’re going to build to peak for Friday night.”
The Portage Terriers are the top team in the MJHL for a reason. They boast a high-flying offence that has been able to outscore everyone they’ve encountered.
Offensively, the Terriers are led by Ryan Botterill, who had led the league with 45 goals in 57 games. And everyone down the line for Portage has also been scoring, so it’s a team that can hit you with every single line.
That said, the Nighthawks have the distinction of having prevailed over the Terriers twice this year while on the road, which is no small feat. Niverville took it to them 6–2 at Stride Place on October 19, and just last week Niverville proved that the first win was no fluke, coming out on top 3–2 in the shootout.
A weakness that the Nighthawks might be able to exploit is Portage’s goaltending situation. The Terriers have two goalies who have mainly split starts as of late, and who have both put up around a .900 save percentage. That stat is far from elite.
The Nighthawks’ incumbent netminder, Chris Fines, has put up similar average numbers this season. However, if he’s able to keep up his solid play from his last few starts, that could be the x-factor to potentially send Niverville through to the next round.
Niverville is also going to need its big offensive guns in Josh Paulhus, Brendan Bottom, and Braden Panzer to be at their absolute best if they want to have a chance in this tough series. And they’ll need secondary scoring from players like Desmond Johnson, Brett Tataryn, and Gavin Gunderson.
“We’ve managed to play the top teams in our division pretty tough over the course of the season,” says McAulay. “We can expect a heavy team in Portage that skates well and is well coached. They’ll be playing the game the right way, so we have to match that. We also have to try and match their physicality and creativity to create some offence. And then our goaltending needs to be huge. We need to defend really well, and we need to capitalize on our opportunities. If we do that, I think that we can give Portage a run for their money.”
The Nighthawks are finishing preparations in practice this week before heading to Portage la Prairie to take on the Terriers for game one on Friday night.
“I’ve heard that there’s a 52-seat bus that’s sold out going to game one in Portage on Friday,” says McAulay. “So if that doesn’t scream that Nighthawks fans are ready for the playoffs, I don’t know what does!”
Round One Schedule
Friday, March 24, 7:30 p.m.—Niverville Nighthawks at Portage Terriers
Saturday, March 25, 7:30 p.m.—Portage Terriers at Niverville Nighthawks
Tuesday, March 28, 7:30 p.m.— Niverville Nighthawks at Portage Terriers
Thursday, March 30, 7:30 p.m.— Portage Terriers at Niverville Nighthawks
Friday, March 31, 7:30 p.m.— Niverville Nighthawks at Portage Terriers
Sunday, April 2, 7:30 p.m.— Portage Terriers at Niverville Nighthawks
Tuesday, April 4, 7:30 p.m.— Niverville Nighthawks at Portage Terriers