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Tournament Preview: Bombers prepare for Centennial Cup, fresh new opponents

For only the third time in the team’s history, the Flin Flon Bombers will play for a national junior A title starting Thursday. Here's how the team has prepared and who they will face.
S13 Bombers 4
Knuckles the Moose and Jamie "Poopsie" Webber share a moment before overtime during Game 4 of the Bombers' opening round series.

For only the third time in the team’s modern history, the Flin Flon Bombers will play for a national junior A title starting this week.

The team’s attempt to bring a national championship for the second time in team history will begin in Estevan May 19 at the Centennial Cup, with 10 teams - Bombers included - batting it out for the country’s top spot.

Head coach and general manager has spent much of his time trying to keep the players rallied and ready to go, saying it’s been a balancing act of keeping the team engaged while not either burning them out or getting too rusty.

“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind since we lost out - just trying to recharge a little bit and try to make a plan where our guys are going to be at their best but not getting too rusty,” said Reagan.

It will be the first hockey the team has played since Game 7 of the SJHL title series against the Bruins, where Flin Flon lost out 2-0 and surrendered what would have been the team’s first championship in almost 30 years.

The Bombers won’t be going into the tournament 100 per cent healthy - the coach says some players will still not be ready to go come tournament start - but others with nagging injuries will be available. The team was hit hard by the injury bug this year - in Reagan’s own estimation, only getting to play one game all season with a full-strength lineup.

Flin Flon will be the outlier in a couple of different ways during this tournament. As the runners-up in the SJHL behind hosts Estevan, the Bombers will be the only team in the field who did not win a league championship. The team will also go into the tourney as the only club playing that wasn’t listed in the CJHL’s Top 20 rankings at the end of the regular season - while the Bombers did peek in on the rankings at times, getting as high as 18th place at one point, the team never climbed higher.

These things may be enough to give coaches or players a chip on their shoulder going in, but Reagan is less bothered about the past, more concerned with the near future.

“We don't sit here and say, ‘This is bulls***, we're not getting the respect that we deserve’ or anything like that. We just kind of go about our business,” Reagan said.

“We look at this as a great opportunity for us to win this thing. We believe that we can win. In our dressing room, we believe that we can win. Some guys might have more of a chip on their shoulder than others, but it’s not a focus.”

With that said, part of moving ahead in the tournament will mean beating other leagues’ champions - a task Reagan believes the team is up for.

“We want to prove that we belong and we feel like we did in the playoffs,” he said.

“Everybody's talked about our end of the year, but we were a top three team all year until that point. We felt like we belonged with the Humboldts and Estevans throughout the regular season.”

Reagan thinks that the team’s last month of the regular season, which ended with a 3-9 bellyflop entering playoffs, helped prepare the team for what came next - a taste of adversity that allowed the team to push through.

“For us, I think the adversity we went through in February helped us get to where we are today. Without seeing those tough times, you really don’t know how to handle adversity,” he said.

“I don’t think Humboldt lost three games in a row all year, but for us to go in there and take two in their building really put them on their heels. I’m not saying they handled it poorly or anything like that, but the fact we went through hard times early or in February, if we were down by two, we didn’t panic.”

With the team having left for Estevan Tuesday morning, Reagan added that he was thankful and impressed with the team’s fan support, both at the Whitney Forum and during road games.

“For me personally, it brought back memories of ‘92/93. The atmosphere in the rink was better than Royal Bank Cup to me. It felt like ‘92/93 and being a Flin Flonner, I was proud, proud to be from Flin Flon, proud to be the coach of the Bombers,” Reagan said.

“This is what we talk about all the time, how we've got the best fans in the league, that there's no better place to play than the Whitney Forum. It was just amazing, a special feeling and one I don't think we'll ever forget as a team, all the guys and and our staff. I think it made you proud to be a Bomber. Our entire staff and team is extremely gratefu for the support that we’ve got.”

 

Competition

To start the tournament, the Bombers will play four preliminary round games, each of which will be livestreamed by Hockey Canada.

The Bombers will start their tournament Thursday at 4 p.m. Saskatchewan time (5 p.m. Manitoba time) against the NOJHL champions, the Soo Thunderbirds. The ‘Birds punched their ticket to the tourney in dramatic fashion. Despite the opposing Hearst Lumberjacks going up 3-0 in the series, Soo battled back to reverse sweep Hearst, winning three straight games, forcing a Game 7 and winning the league championship in overtime.

Almost all of the Thunderbirds’ roster is born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie and the team only has four 2001-born players - by contrast, the Bombers and Estevan both have eight. Don’t let that fool you, though - the team is stacked with talent, including league goalie of the year Noah Metivier, league defenceman of the year Andrew Gibson and league MVP and forward of the year Cooper Foster, who come into the tourney ages 18, 17 and 16 respectively. Both Gibson and Foster will likely play in the OHL next year. Forward Michael Chaffay led the team through playoffs with 23 points in 15 games, including 12 goals.

Back on the ice again Saturday, the Bombers will play the CCHL’s Ottawa Jr. Senators, who breezed through their league playoffs with a 12-1 record, sweeping both their first round series and the league final.

The Senators saw much of their offence run through a big four of Philippe Jacques, Julian Racine, Simon Isabelle and Thomas Freel, who each cleared 60 points on the season - no other Sens player cleared 40 points in the regular season. The team relies more on its defence and goaltending to get wins - Ottawa gave up only 21 goals in 13 playoff games and starting goalie William Desmarais ended the playoffs with a .943 save percentage.

Monday afternoon brings a matchup with the MHL champion Summerside Western Capitals, who also cruised through to a league title with a 12-2 record.

In the playoffs, Summerside’s offence saw Jacob Stewart score almost a goal-per-game and Aaron Brown rack up 24 points in 14 games, while regular season top scorer Colby MacArthur had 75 points in only 38 games this year.

The Bombers’ preliminary round games end Tuesday afternoon, playing their only back-to-back of the round against the MJHL champion Dauphin Kings. The Kings beat both rivals Swan Valley and Waywayseecappo before facing a tough test in the Steinbach Pistons, who took the Kings to seven games. A late third period goal by Dauphin’s Brayden Dube got the Kings to a league title and to the big dance.

No other team in the tournament gets more points from their defence than the Kings, who had both Colby Jaquet and Parker Malchuk finish the regular season and playoffs with impressive numbers. Kaden Bryant, a former Manitoba U18 AAA star, put up 75 points and added 17 more in the playoffs, while goalie Carson Cherepak was a brick wall when the team needed him to be in playoff crunch time.

The Bombers hope to come into each game prepared, but to a point - Reagan said that it is possible to overprepare against teams the Bombers may only play once.

“It's difficult, but you know, the same time you're only preparing for one game - it's not a seven game series that you're preparing for. You can put too much stock into your opponent, where you where you lose sleep over how much you know them,” he said.

“We want to know the basics about them - how they forecheck, their D zone coverage, their powerplay, penalty kill, but I feel confident going into this. From my experience with Team Canada West [coaching a team at the World Junior A Challenge], it’s a tournament format and I had three years of doing that. It’s about winning the right games.”