The Melfort Mustangs had a taste of the good life last spring when they returned to the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoffs and head coach and general manager Gavin Holcomb says that appears to be one of the reasons the team has had a good start to the current year.
“It really built that fire within them and they want to get back to that spot,” says Holcomb.
Melfort presently sits at one game above .500, but they are in a four-way battle for top spot in the Sherwood Division standings. The Mustangs lost a number of key players from last year’s team such as Logan Sceviour, Jarret Zentner, Brandon Formosa, Godric Tham, Brennan Bosovich, Jesse Wilkins and Patrick Johnson, but several returning players have stepped up to fill in the holes as have a good crop of first-year players.
“We’re fighting some inconsistency, but it’s a work in progress,” says Holcomb. “We have to fight tooth and nail for every win, everything is so tight. So far there has been a lot of parity and we haven’t seen every team yet.”
Third-year forward Anthony Pickering is the offensive leader for the Mustangs this year having scored six times and setting up 10 others in 13 games. Last year’s leading scorer for Melfort, Brandon Sloan, is also off to a great start as he leads the team in goals with eight while third-year defenceman Matt Saunderson is also contributing offensively (2-7-9) while leading a young defensive corp.
The Mustangs have added Lane Harbor from Weyburn and gained a couple of players with Western Hockey League experience in Riley Boomgaarden and Dexter Bricker who have both played with the Red Deer Rebels in the past.
Melfort has also reaquired defenceman Preston Eshenko from Whitecourt of the Alberta Junior Hockey League and first-year forward Travis Mayan from Rimby, Alta., has surprised everyone as he has notched 14 points in just 11 games.
A major concern for the Mustangs when the season started was goaltending as Wilkins and Johnson both played very well for the team last year, but have since moved on. Enter Austin Rediron and Jack Romaniuk who together have helped the Mustangs post a team goals-against average of 2.36 which is among the leaders in the league.
“We take a lot of pride in our defensive play,” admits Holcomb. “Our p/k (penalty kill) has been really good and our pp (power play) has been better than this time last year. It all depends on how we progress.”
The Mustangs are certainly moving in the right direction as last year they finished fifth in the North Division and then eliminated the Battlefords North Stars in three straight games in the Survivor Series before being ousted by the Humboldt Broncos in a divisional semifinal tilt.
Through 14 games a year ago the Mustangs were 5-9-0-0 and that was on the heels of a season in 2011-12 in which Melfort missed the playoffs when they won just 13 games all year.
It takes time for a team to adjust to all the new faces, but it looks like the Mustangs have a nice mix of veteran leadership and fresh-faced rookies. It also appears that Melfort has a long-term plan in place and slowly that roadmap to success is beginning to take shape.