The Portage Terriers' road to the 2012 RBC Cup was significantly shorter than it was in 2011.
The team can be excused if it didn't exactly feel that way, though.
The Terriers won the Manitoba Junior Hockey League's Addison Division in their first year in the conference, as they switched over from the Sher-Wood Division over the summer. The move was designed to save Portage travel time and money, as their longest in-division road trip was less than two hours – a nice reduction from the regular eight-hour jaunts they'd experienced in the past.
Even with less time on the highway, the ride wasn't always smooth. In addition to replacing long-time players in forwards Tyler Moore, Kyle Turgeon and Cory More, the team also had to make up for playmaker Stephane Pattyn, who moved onto the University of North Dakota with a year of eligibility remaining, as well as goalie Jason Kasdorf, who joined Des Moines of the USHL.
Initially, it was the loss of Kasdorf and the graduating Kirk Croswell that was of concern, as Portage auditioned a slew of netminders in camp and into the regular season. Adam Iwan made it through, but without an MJHL win to his name at the beginning of the season, wasn't initially ready for prime-time. Veteran Shea Cooper was acquired from Estevan of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and took on the bulk of the work, earning 30 wins in 43 games.
Injuries played a major role in Portage's season, as sniper Brendan Harms, bruiser Shaq Merasty and captain Andrew Wiebe all missed significant regular-season time, and top defenceman Cody Kostecki missed all but three MJHL playoff games.
An injury also resulted in a change in net at a key time, as Iwan stepped in for an injured Cooper heading into the playoffs. The 19-year-old Winnipegger was tremendous in backstopping the Terriers to their second Turnbull Cup in a row and fifth in seven years.
Portage began with a sweep of the Selkirk Steelers, a 4-2 series win over the Winnipeg Blues, and then a 4-1 victory over the Winnipeg Saints – an Addison Division club that crossed over and won the Sher-Wood Division title.
After the MJHL final, leading scorer Brent Wold said the adversity the team faced this year proved to be beneficial in the end.
“That's what helped us out,” said Wold. “Especially with Iwan coming up big there. He didn't really get a chance (earlier on) and then he put us on his back and carried us.”
After dispatching the rest of the MJHL, the Terriers set their sights on the SJHL champions, the Humboldt Broncos, as they faced off for the final ANAVET Cup. The series meant little as an RBC Cup qualifier, as the Broncos were already in as hosts, handing the Terriers the West berth.
The two teams played for keeps, though, with Humboldt winning the first three games and Portage reeling off the next three to set up a Game 7, won 4-0 by Humboldt.
Terriers head coach Blake Spiller said the team learned a lot about itself over the course of the ANAVET Cup series. Portage rebounded from being outscored 14-5 in the first two games to winning three of four one-goal games to get to the winner-take-all contest.
“We definitely learned that we can play at this calibre if we've got enough guys that are going to step up and play to this level,” said Spiller. “We know the week after isn't going to be easy, either, but we gained confidence and hopefully that'll help us down the road.”