The Yellowknife Wolfpack bantams are in full swing and just to prove it, they went out and showed why they will likely have a very successful season.
The team made the trip to Richmond, B.C. for the Sandman Hotel Icebreaker over the Thanksgiving long weekend and made it a worthwhile journey by beating Portland, Oregon 5-4 in the final on Monday to take the title.
The Wolfpack entered Tier 2, or AA, meaning it was high-intensity right off the bat for the bantams this season. This tournament included body checking, something the players don’t do at home.
Head coach Shawn Talbot said there were some blockbuster hits at the tournament but his message to the troops was to make sure they used the checking option to their advantage.
“We spent some time teaching them how to check and how to take one and the logic behind it,” he said. “A lot of times, you’ll see the kids actually lose sight of the play just to throw a check and so a lot of it was teaching them that checking is just another tool in the toolbox.”
The round-robin was first up for the Wolfpack and it started out well enough with a winning opener against a Seattle, Washington team 5-2. They followed that up with a 6-4 win over Surrey, B.C., before dropping their only game of the tournament to Vancouver, 4-3.
Talbot said the confidence level was probably in overdrive in that game.
“I think they got a bit too overconfident after winning their first two games,” he said. “They thought they would win the game without putting in the effort that was required and, honestly, it was a good one to lose. We broke them down afterward but built them back up for that next game.”
The path to the gold medal was still there as the second-place finish in the round-robin put them into the semifinal against the host team, Seafair Minor Hockey.
Talbot said the team came out with a new attitude and a 4-2 win sealed their place in the championship game.
“It was all about reminding them of doing what got them there in the first place,” said Talbot. “(Seafair) were a far better team than the Vancouver team we lost to and it was a great rebound game. They had a great goalie but we outplayed them from the first puck drop.
“The kids just snapped into game mode, beat them on the ice physically, outworked them and had a tough time scoring but their goalie was amazing.”
The Portland team the Wolfpack took on in the final was much bigger size-wise. Talbot said he was also informed that this was the city’s top bantam-aged team, every single one of them second-year bantams except for three. The difference in size was apparently very obvious.
“I have two under-aged players so looking at how big these kids were and watching how they won their semifinal, they were strong and it plays in your head a bit,” said Talbot. “But they only tied Seafair when they played them, 1-1, so they were a beatable team.”
The Wolfpack opened the scoring only to have Portland tie it up near the end of the first period. The second period saw Portland take a 3-2 lead but it would be the start of the third period that gave Talbot fits.
Ayden Harvey ended up getting a game misconduct for drilling one of the Portland players rather hard, all in retaliation for a two-hander delivered to the arm of Regan Bulger in the second stanza. That meant Portland ended up with a 5-on-3 power-play to start the third. Luckily, goaltender Devin Vogel managed to stand tall between the pipes and the Wolfpack were able to kill it off.
The Wolfpack would tie the game on a power-play of their own and took the lead shortly after that, followed by another with less than two minutes remaining on the clock to take a 5-3 lead with two minutes left on the clock. But Portland did not go away quietly. They got one back and then had a golden opportunity with less than 90 seconds remaining in regulation time as the Wolfpack took another minor.
Portland pulled their goaltender, making it 6-on-4 situation, giving Talbot and the players plenty of nail-biting moments but Vogel once again shut the door to preserve the win.
“That last minute was pretty tense, I’ll tell you that,” said Talbot. “Our goalie made some huge saves and our penalty killers just did a great job at keeping them out.”
Next up for the Wolfpack is a trip to Cochrane, Alta., for another AA tournament next month.