By Derek Holtom
MJHL Web Correspondent
So if you had to guess, who was the hottest team in the MJHL to end the month of January? First place Steinbach? Surging Portage?
Good guesses ── but both wrong. The team with the most points in their last 10 games heading into February was in fact the seventh-seeded Winnipeg Blues. Once battling just to get into the post season, the Blues are now solidly in a playoff spot, with designs on continuing to climb the standings and more.
Winnipeg GM/Head Coach Billy Keane said there are plenty of reasons why the Blues went 8-1-1 to end the month of January (a point better than both top-seeded Steinbach and second-seeded Portage), though he feels it all starts in goal.
“Jeremy Link has had a terrific month – he went 7-1-1, had a 2.48 GAA and a .916 save percentage – so that’s where it all starts for sure,” said Keane. “We also have Brendan Bartlett on the back end, a real work horse that plays 25 plus minutes a night, and putting up his best season statistically.”
From there, the Blues started to get improved play from their veterans, while adding several new faces, which all helped contribute to their success.
“Dexter Kuczek is now the leading scorer in the league, and he had a great month with 22 points,” said Keane. “Levi Cudmore is another player who had an outstanding January – 18 points in 11 games.”
“Brady Castellano and Nathan Hillis came in from Selkirk (at the deadline) and fit right in,” added the Blues’ bench boss. “And the two WHLers we got back – Nick Cicek and Devon Skoleski – and they’ve both been a real factor.”
The final pieces to the Blues’ puzzle was the return of three players from long-term injuries – a list headlined by their captain.
“Matt Leblanc, our captain, was out since early October, and just came back from a broken leg,” noted Keane. “We also got Dylan Cassie, one of our top young defenceman, back from a separated shoulder. And Brendan Kochanski was out with a bad back for a while.”
“We basically added seven players in and around the trade deadline, and that made a significant difference for us.”
The Blues’ strong play has created some separation between themselves and the eighth-seeded Neepawa Natives, but the league is so strong this year, they still haven’t been able to climb out of the seventh-seeded spot. That said, the Blues entered the last day of January a mere four points out of fourth place – showing just how tight things are in the MJHL right now.
“We were in the seven-eight-nine spot (along with Neepawa and Swan Valley), and one of us wasn’t going to make it in,” said Keane. “We’re now in the four-five-six discussion, and that’s been a real testament to the guys and their commitment to each other.”
Playing such strong hockey at the moment, the Blues are not only thinking of just making the playoffs now – they feel they are positioning themselves for a run at the title.
“We won in 2013-14 as the fifth seed (in the old Addison Division),” said Keane. “As long as you get in, it’s anyone’s ball game.”