The Selkirk Fishermen lineup for the Capital Region Junior Hockey League final will be much different than the one that was employed for most of the regular season.
Approximately six to nine players that suited up for the Fishermen during the regular season have missed time in the post-season due to work commitments, injuries, suspensions and personal reasons. That meant six affiliated players each game drew into the lineup in the semifinal round.
Despite the heavy turnover, head coach and general manager Chris Poponick was able to guide Selkirk past the upstart Lundar Falcons in a best-of-seven series that was capped off with Kobe Campbell scoring early in double overtime in Game 7 as the top-seeded Fishermen eliminated the No. 5 Falcons 3-2 at the Selkirk Recreation Complex on March 26.
Selkirk posted a 23-7-1-1 record in the regular season, which included a 10-game winning streak in January and February, while the Falcons (11-16-2-3) needed to get past the St. Malo Warriors in a best-of-three survivor series to earn a date with the Fishermen.
Lundar gave Selkirk all it could handle in the semis, and if not for the brilliance of Campbell, who scored six times in five games in his return to the lineup after an early-season injury cost him 31 regular- and post-season games combined, it might have been the Falcons matching up with the North Winnipeg Satelites in the best-of-seven final.
“They were doing some things to us in the first few games and taking advantage of our squad being very young, considering we had so many players out of the lineup and six APs in every single game,” Poponick told The Selkirk Journal. “They took advantage of that and stretched it out by beating our first line of attack — our forecheck — and then having nothing but continuous three-on-twos and two-on-ones against our defence.
“When it came down to Game 6 and Game 7, we made some adjustments to our forecheck and that really proved to be a big differentiator in the whole series because they weren’t able to make those stretch plays and have those three-on-twos and two-on-ones.”
Campbell’s play was also huge.
“He’s been a very valuable asset,” Poponick added. “He’s a very good hockey player and we have a number of different line combinations in many situations and he’s scored a couple of big goals, that’s for sure, especially in Game 7 — the first goal and the winning goal.”
Not tested too often during the regular season, Poponick believes a rugged seven-game series with the Falcons was good for his young squad, which is expected to see alternate captain and the team’s fifth-leading scorer Dane Derewianchuk return. He only played three games in the semis.
“It helps a ton because of the experience we gained,” Poponick said. “As much as the regular season got us to prepare for teams to play in the playoffs, we didn’t have that luxury because all of the guys we prepared to play in the playoffs aren’t there. It’s massive to have this kind of a pressure-packed situation and to have to put these young kids in those situations in the semifinals, so that if and when we come up against that in the final, they’ll be a lot more prepared to handle the game situation.”
Selkirk may have been the class of the CRJHL, but North Winnipeg wasn’t — at least early in the season.
By the one-third mark of the campaign, the Satelites, which feature forward Nathan Jones of St. Andrews, had bumbled their way to a 2-7-0-2 record. However, they won 13 of their last 21 games on the backs of all-stars Rustyn Lodon and Derian Emes to earn the third seed in the playoffs.
North Winnipeg rode that momentum into its semifinal matchup with the Arborg Ice Dawgs and came out on top, taking the best-of-seven series 4-2. Goaltender Kenton Brass capped the series with a 29-save shutout in a 4-0 Satelites win in Game 6.
In five playoff games against Arborg, Brass posted a 4-1 record, with a 1.60 goals-against average and .949 save percentage.
Poponick acknowledged that North Winnipeg has been a tough team for Selkirk to play against this season — the Satelites handed the Fishermen three of their eight regular-season losses — and he expects the final will be a grinder.
“We’ve had some good games against them this year … and they’re the team that beat us the most in the regular season,” Poponick said. “I’ve got a whole new team coming at them so I really don’t know how things stack up.”
“The one thing about North Winnipeg is they don’t stop working. They continuously come at you and you can’t get them down,” he continued. “I think that’s the biggest thing for us is going to be how quickly we can get that momentum and keep it at the start of a game and over a game-by-game situation.
The Junior B foes know each other well from their time in the Keystone Junior Hockey League, but coming away with the first CRJHL title is significant for the Fishermen.
“It’s huge. It’s a brand new league, it’s a brand new start and we want to be that team,” he said. “We love being the top dog and we proved it throughout the regular season, now we just have to prove it in the playoffs and make it so everybody wants to beat the Fish.
“That’s kind of the way we like it.”
This is North Winnipeg’s first appearance in a final since 2006, while Selkirk, which lost its last KJHL final in four straight games to the Peguis Juniors three years ago, is looking to win a junior B title for the first time since its triumph over the Juniors in 2015.
The series begins on March 29 with the Fishermen hosting Game 1 at the Selkirk Recreation Complex at 7:30 p.m. Game 2 will be played at the St. James Civic Centre on March 31 at 1:30 p.m. Games 3 and 4 will be played on April 2 and 3, in Selkirk and at the Civic Centre, respectively, with both contests starting at 7:30 p.m. If necessary, Game 5 will be in Selkirk on April 5, with the Satelites hosting Game 6 at the Civic Centre on April 7, and Game 7 returning to Selkirk on April 10. Games 5, 6 and 7 would all begin at 7:30 p.m.