Riding a strong second half and a hot goaltender, the Whistler Winterhawks Bantam A team has achieved its preseason goal of reaching the provincial championships.
The Winterhawks survived a four-point series against the Burnaby Winter Club that went to the wire and later punched their ticket to the Bantam Tier 3 B.C. Championship by winning the Pacific Coast Amateur Hockey Association's Final Four tournament in Abbotsford with a 3-0 record.
"We've just been playing really well as a team, offensively and defensively," said Winterhawks goalie Michael Finlay. "We're just pumped as a team."
Whistler received a bye from the first round of single-elimination playoff games for finishing first in its flight during the regular season, posting a record of 10-4-6.
The 'Hawks got off to a tough start to the season, losing three of their first six outings, but finished on a 9-1-4 tear to earn top spot.
Head coach Joey Ewing said it took the first few weeks of the season for his players to adjust back to rep-calibre hockey after many were forced to play house league last season due to low skater numbers.
"They're the type of players who can adjust; they just needed that push," said Ewing.
"They just started getting excited about playing good hockey and that's what you want the kids to do. You want them to be challenged and when you're challenged, some people rise and some people fall. These guys definitely rose to the top."
Whistler needed to get past Burnaby to qualify for the final four and lost the first game of the series, but Finlay posted back-to-back shutouts as the Winterhawks won Games 2 and 3 by 1-0 scores to advance.
"I'm just trying to get mentally ready before games and stay sharp," Finlay said of his recent strong play. "My D have been doing a great job."
The final four - a round-robin tournament from which the top two teams qualify for provincials - saw Whistler hammer Ridge Meadows 9-1 and edge a Vancouver opponent 2-1 to clinch their provincial berth. Evan Horvath netted the game-winner on a breakaway with just one minute remaining against Vancouver.
Wrapping up the final four on Monday (March 7), Whistler won the league banner by knocking off Surrey by a 6-2 count.
"We've been in some pretty tight games but have been able to pull through and win most of them," said Whistler's Tyler Welsh, who had a hat trick in the win over Surrey. "Our goaltending's been pretty solid and we've been able to get the key goals at the right times."
Welsh has been on fire through the postseason, posting 19 points in the six games despite his diminutive stature. Ewing described Welsh as a forward who "weighs 85 pounds and is 4' 11", but he plays like he's 6' 5' and 250," and said he's been an offensive leader for the team.
"He's a first-year guy but he never takes a shift off and it's really nice to have a kid like that on the team," said Ewing. "He motivates everyone with his play."
The provincial championships run March 20 to 25 in Smithers, and Finlay said the 'Hawks mindset for the tournament is simple.
"Win it," he said. "I want that trophy and I really think we can do it because we've been playing really well lately."
Added Welsh: "We've all been to provincials before, so we know it's going to be good teams and we just have to play our game."