The Notre Dame Hounds are top dogs once again.
For the third time in four seasons, Notre Dame has captured the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League title.
The latest such conquest was celebrated Friday night when Notre Dame defeated the Saskatoon Blazers 4-1 at Duncan McNeill Arena in Wilcox to end the best-of-five final in four games.
“They stuck together and stuck with it all year. To see one of our goals come to fruition, it’s very rewarding.”
Del Pedrick was the head coach when Notre Dame captured the league title in 2016. Praught has been behind the bench for the last two championship efforts.
Although teams change and evolve from year to year, consistency fuels the Hounds’ success.
“You’ve got to give credit to the players, who work hard and buy in every year,” Praught said. “Part of it’s got to be the culture, too. There’s been a culture here at Notre Dame, built off character.
“Our guys exemplified it at the end of this year, working hard and never losing heart.”
Notre Dame posted a 28-12-2-2 record to finish fourth in the regular-season standings, behind the Regina Pat Canadians (33-7-2-2), Tisdale Trojans (32-7-4-1) and Saskatoon (31-10-0-3).
Although the Hounds were more dominant during the 2017-18 season, going 39-2-1-2 before winning all nine of their playoff games, the end result was the same this time around.
The 2018-19 Hounds foreshadowed their playoff success by winning their final nine regular-season games — by a combined score of 55-20 — and amassing a league-best 193 goals.
In best-of-five playoff series, the Hounds then swept the fifth-place Swift Current Legionnaires (28-14-1-1) before defeating Regina in five games and Saskatoon in four.
Along the way, the Hounds won all three of their overtime games (including two in double OT) and shrugged off being shut out in the opener of each of the final two series.
“I give credit to the guys,” Praught said. “You can hear them on the bench. They’re getting it. They’re staying head-strong, as they put it themselves, and seeing it through until the end.”
The Hounds won the final three games of the championship series, posting 3-2 victories in Games 2 and 3 before settling matters on Friday.
Will Lavigne ended Game 2 at 9:44 of the second overtime period. Hounds goalie Thomas Wardle made 49 saves in that game.
“Thomas Wardle has done a phenomenal job,” Praught noted. “I thought he was a game-changer in every game of the playoffs.”
Wardle made 29 saves Wednesday in Saskatoon, where Maxwell Joy’s third-period goal broke a 2-2 tie.
Joy scored the winning goal again Friday, snapping a 1-1 deadlock at 7:55 of the third frame. Trey Funk, Coalson Wolford and Cam Recchi (with an empty-netter) also scored for Notre Dame.
Wolford, Josselin Dufey, Drew Englot and Jake Dale are the four returnees from last year’s national championship team.
“The leadership within the team is very strong and, every day, those four guys are holding the boys to a standard and pushing the pace in practice and making the most of every video and workout session,” Praught said. “I think the team really bought into that.
“Those guys have been there. They want to get back. They’re hungry to get back and they’re surrounded by a group who wants to experience it.”
Next on the agenda is the Telus Cup’s West regional qualifier, which is to run from Thursday to Sunday in Tisdale.
The Hounds, Trojans, Thunder Bay Kings and Brandon Wheat Kings are to take part. The winner will advance to the Telus Cup, April 22-28 in Thunder Bay. The Kings are guaranteed a Telus Cup berth as the host team.
“For our group, a provincial championship is a memory that they’re going to have for the rest of their lives,” Praught said. “Not to undersell that, because we appreciate that, but we’ve got to refocus, for sure.
“We have to go into the tournament hungry and like we haven’t accomplished anything yet. Our guys want to get to the main stage and we want to give ourselves an opportunity to repeat.”Notre Dame has already won a record five Canadian midget AAA championships, celebrated in 1980, 1986, 2009, 2010 and 2018