Jets soaring just in time for MMJHL playoffs

AJ Nychuk of the Stonewall Jets carries the puck past Justin Engel of the St. Vital Victorias. The Jets won 4-3 in a shootout in Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League action at the Veterans Memorial Sports Complex in Stonewall, Man. on March 10. (Adam Peleshaty/The Stonewall Argus and Teulon Times)

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The Stonewall Jets are playing some of their best hockey at the right time.

The Jets finished the regular season with five straight victories after winning their regular season-ender 4-3 over the St. Vital Victorias in a shootout at the Veterans Memorial Sports Complex on March 10. With the win, Stonewall finished the season with a 23-18-4 record for 50 points and seventh place, meaning that the Jets will face the second-seeded Raiders Jr. Hockey Club for the sixth straight year. The only time Stonewall defeated the Raiders in the playoffs during that time was in their 2016 championship run.

However, Jets head coach Brock Couch believes his team can play above its standing.

“I would say that at times during the season, we underachieved and those tough stretches put us where we are,” Couch wrote in an email to The Stonewall Argus and Teulon Times. “That being said, we had to continue to fight to stay in seventh and (we) are playing well at the right time. I mean, we just beat the first-place Pembina Valley Twisters (4-2 on March 3), so I would say the team feels quite confident.”

On the ice, the team’s offensive attack is led by Aiken Chop, who finished tied for fourth in league goal-scoring with 31 and added 25 assists for a team-high 56 points. Ryan McMahon had 21 goals and 29 assists for 50 points, while Keeven Daniels-Webb, brought in early in the season, had 17 markers and 30 helpers for 47 points in only 34 games.

“McMahon has come a long way in three years and it’s exciting that he still has another season with us. Aiken’s shot is one of the best in the league and his size and physicality only helps him. I’m excited to see what he brings in the post-season,” Couch added.

Jared Hulme and Braden Groot had 10 and eight goals from the blue-line, respectively, while Curtis Beck had a 13-9-3 record in net and teammate Adam Swan had a 10-9-1 record. In fact, Couch only replaced his goaltender once this season: Swan was pulled for Beck in the third period of a 7-4 loss to the Twisters on Oct. 14.

Stonewall will see six players age out of junior after this season: Forwards Chop, Sam Mandryk, AJ Nychuk and captain Bryce Stovin; and defensemen Groot and Andrew Bayduza. Chop, Mandryk and Bayduza are the last players from the 2016 championship team to leave.

“It will be tough to see them go after this season is over, however they’ve been a huge part in staring the next chapter.  It’s not over yet and I know those guys will give it their all in their last playoffs,” Couch said.

The focus now is on the Raiders, whom the Jets have not beaten during the season. Despite none of their players in the top-15 in league scoring, the team played to a 29-11-5 record on the backs of defence and netminders Jeremy Pikel and Logan Thiessen. The Raiders are first in goals against and penalty killing.

“The key will be to keep games close and find a way to score at the right times,” Couch said. “I feel confident we can advance past them if we put together consistent efforts and bring that extra bit of grit required in the playoffs.”