Trust and confidence are simple ingredients the Borderland Thunder have used throughout a successful regular season.
It’s something they hope will help carry towards more success when the inaugural Superior International Junior Hockey League playoffs begin tomorrow.
“Our team feels we’re strong enough to go quite a long distance here. I think everyone is ready,” said starting goalie Rob Hrabec, whose first-place team hosts the fourth-place Thunder Bay KC Bulldogs Thursday and Friday night at the Ice for Kids arena to open the best-of-seven SIJHL semi-final.
Games 3 and 4 will go March 20 and 21 at the Fort William Gardens in the Lakehead.
The Feathermen Hawks will square off against the Dryden Ice Dogs in the other semi-final.
So far Hrabec, a veteran of several Manitoba Junior Hockey League playoffs including a league title with the OCN Blizzard two years ago, has been one of the Thunder’s most valuable players. Since his arrival in late-November, the Kenora native has a 16-2-4 record and leads the SIJHL with a goal-against-average of 2.48.
As a team, he said there should be very little change to their winning formula.
“For the playoffs, we just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’re a hitting team and we have lots of speed,” said Hrabec. “Everyone plays great together. There’s not one guy I don’t trust on my team.”
Borderland was 6-3-1 against Thunder Bay this season, including an undefeated mark at the Ice for Kids arena—a rink where the Thunder are a league-best 17-1-6 and 28-11-9 overall.
“They have the best record at home. That may be the overall difference,” said Bulldogs head coach Brian Vescio, whose team finished at 24-21-3 in their first campaign. “They deserve first place. They’ve been the most consistent team all year.
“[But] we’re looking forward to playing this top team. It’ll be interesting. Hopefully, it’s going to be some really good hockey,” he added.
The Thunder have boasted a balanced attack this season, led by their two top forwards lines—Justin Bodnarchuk, Matt Johnson, Chad Baldwin on one and Kevin Webb, Kyle Prystupa, and Ian Lockman on the other.
But the defensive third line has been scoring their share recently too. They’re centred by team captain Josh Baxter and sportt a rotation of Dallas Mosbeck, Cole Hayward and Ryan Hilfer—who missed the last two games with shoulder problems but see should limited time, according to Thunder head coach Wayne Strachan — at the wing positions.
If defenceman Ryan Hampton returns, it’ll be for games 3 and 4. Fellow blueliner Clayton Windigo suffered a minor concussion in Friday’s second-last regular season game against the Hawks but should suit up for the first two games.
“We have a couple injuries right now. We had been juggling the lines around recently,” said Strachan. “But the old saying goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ so we’ll probably stick with our lines.”
On the other side, the Bulldogs’ trio of Tyler Bruno, Trevor Karasiewicz, and Brian Dzijak are the most potent combo in the SIJHL, accounting for 60 percent of their team’s goal-output.
Karasiewicz, a 20 year-old city league junior ‘B’ product, led the SIJHL in scoring with 85 points (35 goals/50 assists) in only 32 games. Bruno and Dzijak also are in the top-ten in scoring.
Webb and Johnson are the Thunder’s two top scorers in the top ten.
“It’s one big key to shut that top line down,” said Strachan, adding his team did so successfully in their last pair of wins against the Bulldogs here in mid-February.
Vescio said his team has hung in tough against the Thunder recently and is looking for that to continue into the playoffs.
“We know we have to win one game there. We know what we have to do. We’ve played this team relatively close in the Fort,” he noted.
Despite holding a ten-point lead in the standings three weeks ago, the Thunder needed two wins here over the Hawks this past weekend to retake and clinch top spot and home ice advantage throughout the post-season.
Webb, David Lloyd, Baldwin, Lockman, Troy Arnold and Prystupa scored in the Thunder’s 6-1 win Friday while Boomer Redford, Lockman (two), and Baldwin tallied in Saturday’s 4-3 triumph.
Advanced seats for the playoffs cost $10 and can be purchased at Skates and Blades and the C&C Complex.