It's been more then half a century since Conn Smythe said the iconic line "if you can't beat'em in the alley, you can't beat'em on the ice", but on Wednesday night, the Steinbach Pistons turned back the clock, defeating the Neepawa Natives 6-0 on the ice and 2-0 in the fight department.
Since being acquired via trade on November 30th, all Doug Johnson has done has come in and been nothing but a role model both on and off the ice. The hard-working, tough defender from Darien, CT, USA has earned much praise and respect from his new teammates and it was Johnson who got the scoring started on Wednesday.
After a good keep in along the wall, Tyson McConnell made his way behind the net and looked out to see a cutting Johnson who found the perfect lane into the slot. McConnell hit the 20-year-old defender with the pass and Johnson buried his first career MJHL goal. McConnell and Tanner Mole were given the assists on the 1-0 goal.
For Johnson, it was a bit of a surreal moment as the former Flin Flon Bomber scored his first goal against a teammate from last season, ex-Bomber goalie Nik Anderson. "It's kind of bittersweet", Johnson said with a smile after the game. "Nik's a really good friend of mine from Flin Flon. It was good to get the first one but if I had to choose a goalie, it probably wouldn't have been him."
Hands And Fists
Steinbach added to their lead just over three minutes later when Brendan Westbrook outworked the Natives defender in front, fighting to get a loose puck and scoring his 8th of the year to make it 2-0. Johnson and McConnell had the assists as both players picked up their second points of the period.
The first period ended with some fireworks as after some jousting, Steinbach's Jack Kilroy dropped the gloves with Neepawa's Drayson Skulmoski.
Kilroy's strategy in the tilt was to swing first, swing often and never let up. He achieved all three and won his first MJHL fight quite handily.
Afterwards, Kilroy joked, "I don't think he knew I'm left-handed", to which a teammate not in the lineup responded, "Killer, WE didn't know you were lefthanded either."
Steinbach won the period 2-0 and had a clear decision on the fighting scorecard as they headed into the second period.
DQ, Order Up!
After getting things started in the first period with a very solid body check, Pistons forward David Queree had a good chance in the slot that he fired just wide. In the second, he would again keep up the hitting and this time, make no mistake hitting the scoreboard...eventually.
After a hardworking shift from the line of Queree, Troy Beauchemin and Trent Halfdanson forced a number of Neepawa turnovers, the puck was cycled down behind the net to Beauchemin who passed it out in front to Queere. His original shot was stopped by the Natives goalie but as the puck remained loose in front of the goal, Queere reached for it to try and gain control, instead, pushing it forward and into the back of the net for the Richmond, BC native's 3rd goal of the year.
Beauchemin and Halfdanson were given assists on the 3-0 goal.
After the game, Queree had a laugh about just how ugly the goal was to which head coach Paul Dyck responded, "they don't ask how, they ask how many!". Queere couldn't help but smile.
Goal Of The Year Candidate
The Pistons continued to pressure the Natives all over the ice and it ended up leading to what might be the goal of the year.
Westbrook picked up a loose puck in the defensive zone and turned on the jets, pushing the Natives defenders back into the neutral zone. Westbrook continued to push the pace, making his way into the offensive zone while McConnell busted along the other side, keeping pace with his teammate.
It appeared that Westbrook was going to take a shot from right around the top of the circle to the left of the Neepawa goalie. As Westbrook cranked his stick back, the Natives defender went reaching, trying to poke the puck free. Westbrook protected the puck, pulled it back into his body and walked around the defender with an absolutely beautiful, NHL 19 video game style deke that left all who saw it wide-eyed before sliding the puck over to McConnell who hammered it home for his 16th of the year to make it 4-0.
Twine Ticklers And Tilly's
Brady Tatro took another step closer to the twenty goal plateau in the third as the hulking 20-year-old fought to find space in the slot and snapped home a quick, perfect wrister to expand Steinbach's lead to 5-0. Brendan Martin and Caydin Cleland had assists on the goal. (The scoresheet reads two other players but it should have been Martin and Cleland).
As the lead expanded, Neepawa became increasingly frustrated and things started to get a little chippy as they tried to get under the skin of the Pistons and it worked. The Natives were able to goad another Piston into dropping the gloves.
The bad news for Neepawa was the player that decided to go was Troy Williams.
After Braden Gillies and Williams exchanged slashes, the two separated only to come back together again behind the Pistons net. As they made their way out to the blueline, the gloves flew and after a brief stand-off, Williams engaged and went to work. After getting the upper hand in the scrap quickly, Williams didn't look back as he earned a decisive victory in the tilt which had the bench standing again, just like they did Kilroy's fight in the first.
With under a minute to go in the game, Kyle Bettens walked out of the corner, drove through a couple of Natives defenders and cut across the crease and slid the puck home for his 3rd of the year. Bettens showed several times during the game that he can be too much for other teams to handle, especially when he drives to the net. Tristan Culleton had the lone assist on the final goal of the night, 6-0.
Steinbach's power play went 0-2 while the penalty kill was 1-1.
Hunting For Goose Eggs
Matt Radomsky was picture perfect in net stopping all 25 shots that came his way. The always humble goalie was quick to share the praise to his teammates after the game as when he was asked what he saw during the game, he said "everything", before flashing the trademark Radomsky smile. "Every puck that was thrown at me, I had no problems finding it. The guys in front of me kept everyone to the outside and couldn't crash the net. It made my game a lot easier to play. I felt my rebound control was good and shots from the outside or the ringette line are pretty easy to stop."
There were a couple of moments of excitement for Radomsky, most notably when he came way out of his crease to handle a puck and keep it away from the Natives forward. 'Matty Rads' just smiled and laughed after the game as he explained what was going through his mind at the time. "I think that play, they had a delayed penalty, I was actually skating towards the bench and I saw the puck come so I made a quick little dish before I got to the bench. No one was sure there was a penalty so they had no idea what I was doing. I told them to wake up and get some awareness (laughs)."
Radomsky's 17 wins and 4 shutouts are both tops in the Manitoba Junior Hockey Leauge. He also owns the best Goals Against Average at 2.10 and second best Save Percentage at .925.
Head Coach Paul Dyck praised his entire team for not just the result of Wednesday's game, but for how the team came out after the holiday break. "It's never perfect but that's probably as close, particularly on the road, that we've been to putting 60 minutes together. After the game, we talked about the contributions from up and down the lineup tonight and that's the key to being successful in our league. It was encouraging to see everyone contribute in that way and not just on the scoresheet, but in the way we're playing. Guys were really physical, guys were on the forecheck and tough to play against and that's one of the things we talked about earlier today is just establishing that identity, reinforcing it towards the playoffs."
It's rare to see one fight in a game, let alone two but for the veteran coach, he knows the impact dropping the gloves can have on a game and on the bench. "It doesn't happen a lot but guys rally around those situations. As much as it's being taken out of the game, I think fans still enjoy it when it happens for the most part. No one was hurt which is the most important part and always a positive. I had no problem with those two today."
Power Play Not Liking Road Trips
One area where the Pistons will need to improve going forward and into the playoffs is their power play, specifically on the road.
Steinbach's man-advantage currently ranks 5th overall in the MJHL, connecting at just over 21%. On the road, however, they drop down to 8th overall, scoring at 12.3%. A far cry from the league-leading Terriers who score on 33.3% of their road power plays.
"I'm not sure what it is, to be honest", Dyck said after the game. "We worked on it the last two days coming into the game tonight and had some discussions around that. Tonight we didn't need them. We put six up and our power play struggled at times. We have been guilty at times of making it too complex, not being hungry particularly on entries. We're losing those initial puck battles, going back and getting frustrated. I think it's the first 10-15 seconds when we enter the zone, we need to move pucks away from pressure when we enter into the zone. Once we're set up, we're fine but that's one area we want to improve on and it will with time. Thankfully we didn't need them tonight."
(Not So) Neat Fact
Out of the 11 losses in regulation so far this year, 8 have come on the road and Dyck can see a trend as to maybe why those games and those points have slipped away. "We've lost 5 one goal games on the road this year and in those games, our power play has been 2 for 27. You look at those games and even if our power play scores two or three more goals that's maybe two or three more wins. The guys understand that and it will improve.
The Pistons will host the Dauphin Kings on Saturday night at the TG Smith Centre. After Saturday's contest, they don't see game action again until Friday when they return to Neepawa to visit the Natives.