With the Miniota-Elkhorn C-Hawks getting past a battling Virden Oil Kings crew, the North Central Hockey League finals are a No. 1 versus No. 2 team affair.
The C-Hawks, who finished in second place with a 15-1-0 record, will meet the NCHL regular season champions Russell Rams, who went 15-0-1. Each team’s lone loss came against the other. While the Rams swept the Swan Valley Axemen 3-0 in the semifinals, Miniota-Elkhorn got by the Oil Kings 3-1.
“The Rams are the most complete team in the league,” C-Hawks coach Tyler Mitchell said. “They boast stellar goaltending, a rock steady group of defencemen, elite offensive talent up front, and a core group of bottom six forwards that work hard and will compete against anyone you put out there against them.
“It will be key for us to play disciplined and win the special teams battle as their power play is potent and can be the difference in the game if you let it. They come at you in waves and will turn any slight piece of momentum into a flurry of scoring chances.”
At the Empire-Advance deadline, three games of the series had been set. Russell hosts game one on Friday with the second contest a week later, on March 15, in Elkhorn. The next day the squads play in Russell.
After the Oil Kings won game one of their semifinals series, the C-Hawks took the next two. Miniota-Elkhorn booked a trip to the league finals with an 8-4 win on the road last Friday. Mitchell said he believes his team’s depth played a factor.
“We got contributions from all four lines, which really put pressure on them to do the same,” he said. “Our special teams also played a big part. We scored multiple power-play goals in games two, three, and four, and after making some adjustments to our penalty kill, it was stellar to close out the series. Credit to the Oil Kings, they had to battle through some injuries in the series but had us on our heels for stretches in the series.”
Virden goalie Josh Peterson was injured in game three while make what Oil Kings coach Blair Koop called “one of the most amazing pad saves you will ever see in person. Never have I seen a save like that to keep it a one-goal game. But it came at a price. We lost the most important piece to our puzzle.”
However, the Oil Kings did not quit in game four. They trailed 8-2 heading into the third period but lit the lamp twice.
“Going into the third, we just talked as a group about not giving up and playing for each other,” said Oil King Joel Cosens, who led Virden with a goal and an assist. “We had a rink full of fans and we really wanted to stay in it for them as appreciation for the support throughout the year.”
More than 700 people came out to watch the final game of the series. With the 50/50 guaranteed to be at least $1,000 by Mainline Motors, more than $1,300 was raised for Shut Out Cancer for Scott as Russell Rams defenceman Scotty Ushey fights cancer.
Losing to the C-Hawks brought a very successful Oil Kings season to a close. The team posted an 11-3-2 regular season record to finish third in the NCHL. In the playoffs, Virden swept Grandview, 2-0, in its best-of-three quarterfinals series.
“The Oil Kings have a great foundation and have some great years to come,” Koop said. “We went from the team that everyone needed for point night to a team that could and will win the league one of these years. Senior hockey is back in Virden and I believe we have showed that.”
He expressed appreciation to the sponsors and every person who attended the late Friday and Saturday night games to watch the team.
“The quality of hockey is exciting, and it’s really been fun for the fans as well,” Cosens said. “With the junior team in town and just how busy it is with hockey, to get the people out to the rink that we did this year, it was easy to show up and play hard every night.”
Koop said he was pleased with the team’s commitment again this season. He noted that the team’s bond formed in the locker room with players going from complete strangers to making lifelong friendships.
“We have a great group of guys,” Cosens said. “It’s been really awesome to be a part of. Everyone plays for each other, trusts each other and is committed. That’s been a real key to things turning around for the organization the past couple years. It’s really fun and it’s been great to get this group together and put a good product on the ice every game.”