A three-goal opening period followed up by some critical penalty kills in the second and third helped the Steinbach Pistons beat the Portage Terriers 5-3 in their first-ever game at the Hylife Centre in La Broquerie.
Fans packed the rink and there was a buzz in the building throughout warmups and player introductions. It was the first time the home fans had a chance to see the 2023-24 team and salute Head Coach Paul Dyck and newly minted captain Leo Chambers.
Perhaps because of all of that, there were some nervous moments that allowed the Terriers to carry much of the play in the first few minutes. With play largely in their own end, the Pistons clamped down and refused to let anything near their goal.
Jamie Fuchs was able to break up a Terrier cycle and rim the puck around the boards to a waiting Wyatt Mattfield. Mattfield turned on the jets and tore up through the neutral zone, dangled around a veteran Portage defender, and held the puck on his backhand before flipping it up top-shelf for a highlight reel goal, opening the scoring for the home side 1-0.
It was the first of the year and first in the MJHL for the 19-year-old from Bemidji, Minnesota, who spent last year as captain of Bemidji High where he put up 15 goals and 13 assists for 28 points in 24 games. The line of Mattfield, Fuchs, and Hunter Degelman were puck hounds all night and it would be a key to the win later in the game.
Still in the first, the Pistons earned a man advantage and on that power play, put forth a how-to guide when it came to puck retrieval, how to keep broken plays alive, great passing, and eventually a goal from 17-year-old Connor Paronuzzi who notched his first in the MJHL off a pass from Kirk Mullen. Jack Cook also added an assist on the power play goal that made it 2-0.
In 23 games last year for the Chatham Maroons, Paronuzzi impressed scoring 10 goals and adding 26 assists in just 23 games. The young playmaker has been hot starting off the year with points in all the contests so far (1 goal, 2 assists).
Cook would add to the lead as the 20-year-old uncorked a bullet from the point, the puck made its way through a whole whack of legs, skates, and sticks before finding the back of the net to make it a 3-0 game. Cook, who's an assistant captain this year, scored 21 goals in the SIJHL last year.
Brett Kaiser and Dawson McCann picked up the assists and the Pistons went into the first intermission up 3-0 and outshooting the Terriers by a wide margin, 22-5.
In the second, the ice tilted the other way.
A steady stream to the penalty box kept Steinbach on the defensive through most of the middle frame. 5 consecutive minor penalties gave Portage a chance to claw back.
Just before a slew of calls started to pile up against the home team, the Pistons lost stud forward Grady Hoffman to an apparent upper-body injury after the 17-year-old took a hard check in the Terriers zone. Hoffman tried to finish the shift but after a few seconds, made his way off the ice in some distress where he was tended to by Jeff Eidse.
Hoffman did not return.
After Hoffman left, the Pistons started to get acquainted with the HyLife Centre penalty box. However, despite all the power play time, including a 5-on-3 for over 30 seconds, the visitors could only find the back of the net once, cutting the lead to 3-1 but finishing 1 for 5 on the man advantage in the period.
Shots evened out thanks to all the time spent in the penalty box for Steinbach as Portage fired 21 shots on goal but Cole Plowman was a warrior, stopping 20 out of 21 to bring his team into the second intermission up 3-1.
In the third, an early Pistons power play gave the blue and white the opportunity to strike which is exactly what they did.
Steinbach worked the puck around the offensive zone, playing keep-away from anyone wearing green. Mullen made a neat backhand pass from the slot to the point where rookie Liam Doyle fired a shot on goal, hitting forward Brandon Funk and deflecting in for his first as a Piston.
Funk was in position to be hit by the point shot thanks to a lot of hard, gritty work in front of the Terrier net. The 18-year-old is no stranger to scoring goals, last year he notched 18 goals while splitting the season with Portage and the Winnipeg Blues.
Portage refused to go quietly into the night.
After failing to score on a power play, the Terriers stuck with the play and managed to get a shot through traffic and into the back of the net to cut the lead to 3-2.
Later in the frame, it looked as though Steinbach would be going to a man advantage after a forward was upended near the Portage bench. No call was made and the Terriers defender was able to work his way in and score to make it a lot more interesting of a game with the score at 4-3.
With the crowd on the edge of their seat and Portage starting to roll, Steinbach buckled down, got the puck deep into Portage territory and the line of Mattfield, Degelman, and Fuchs went to work.
The trio was all over the Terrier defenders, eventually forcing a turnover to the point and the waiting stick of David Cote. Cote paused, waited for the right moment then fired a puck towards the net. After helping free the puck up moments before, Fuchs went to the net and the Cote shot deflected off of him and went up and over the goalie for Fuchs' first this year.
Last year, Fuchs played 8 games for Steinbach but didn't register a goal. After a move to Thunder Bay, Fuchs did find his scoring touch finishing the year with 13 goals and 31 points in 25 games for the North Stars. His first as a Piston was a large one as it restored a two-goal cushion.
Late in the game, Portage pulled the goalie but Plowman and the defenders held the fort until the final buzzer and for the first time, the Pistons saluted to the crowd at the HyLife Centre, signifying a win.
Plowman finished with 34 saves on the night and was massive in the second period where Steinbach spent most of it shorthanded. He's now 2-0 to start the young season.
Steinbach's power play was a factor, finishing an impressive 2-3 while the penalty kill might be the reason they won, going a strong 5-6. Shots finished 38-37 Steinbach.
The Pistons are right back to it on Friday night when the rival Winkler Flyers come to town. The two teams met in the pre-season where many hard checks were thrown, words were exchanged and more then a few pushing and shoving matches broke out.
Game time at the HyLife Centre is 7:00 p.m.