The Moose Jaw Warriors had a chance to finish off the Saskatoon Blades in their first-round Western Hockey League playoff series on Wednesday night, but now they’ll have a chance to do so in front of their hometown fans.
The Blades prolonged the Eastern Conference quarter-final series with a 5-3 win at SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon, meaning that Game 5 will take place in Moose Jaw on Friday night.
“Credit to them, they're a good hockey team,” Warriors head coach Mark O’Leary said of the Blades finding a way to stay alive. “They finished with more wins than we did and we only beat them by a point. They've been a good, good team all year long and that's because they have some forwards that have some real good skills. We saw that tonight off the rush and coupled with their skill level, they can make plays. So that's kind of the part of the game that I didn't like, and we'll need to clean up for Friday.”
The Warriors had the vast majority of offensive opportunities in the first period, with the majority of their 11 shots in the opening frame coming as legitimate scoring chances.
Blades goaltender Nolan Maier was up to the task, though, and kept the game scoreless until his team was able to get something going at the other end of the ice.
Egor Siderov opened the scoring with 2:21 remaining in the first after the Blades were able to get rolling on the cycle in the Warriors zone, and with 10 seconds to play Kyle Crnkovic finished off a quick neutral zone turn-over breakout to put Saskatoon ahead 2-0.
Even though his team came out of the period with a deficit, O’Leary was still happy with how things looked given the number of opportunities.
“I think the positive to take out of it was we really stressed the importance of having a good start,” O’Leary said. “And I think we did that. At the end of the day, it's your intentions and it's the process of doing things right. We did that early on, we generated really good opportunities and scoring chances, but we just didn't finish. You'd like to think that if you do that again you'll have a better result.”
The second period didn’t get off to the greatest of starts for the Warriors, as they struggled to maintain possession and get things going offensively -- to the point they had only one shot on net in the first 10 minutes.
But with 9:25 remaining in the second, it was Max Wanner’s turn to put the ‘pucks on net’ theory to practice, and sure enough, it worked. A scramble at the Warriors blueline saw Cordel Larson feed the puck back to Wanner who teed off on a shot that caught Maier by surprise and pulled Moose Jaw within one.
Saskatoon replied three minutes later, though, when a turnover at the Warriors blueline led to a two-on-oh break for Brandon Lisowsky and Noah Boyko, with Bokyo finishing things off.
Wanner struck again with 1:42 remaining in the period, and it was a big one for Moose Jaw -- his goal came on the power play and was the Warriors first goal with the man advantage in 15 chances, going all the way back to the first period of Game 1.
Larson also played set-up man on that goal, getting the puck to Wanner off the boards just inside the blueline, setting Wanner up for a wide-open shot from the top of the face-off circle.
Three minutes into the second period, Ryder Korczak was left all alone with the puck in the high slot and that turned out to be a big mistake for Saskatoon. Korczak would toe-drag around a diving defender and put a shot top corner glove side on Maier to tie the game 3-3.
It was yet another game where the Warriors didn’t give up and were rewarded for continuing to press.
“That’s been our mindset all season long, that we don't quit. regardless of the circumstances,” O’Leary said. “We just continue to forge on and play a certain way. I think we saw that tonight and just listening to the guys talk on the bench and in the room, there's standards that are expected to be met whether the score is in your favour or not. We just play a certain way and that will be the same way on Friday.”
Saskatoon got an immense break with 11:34 to play in the period when after a string of sustained pressure in the Blades zone, Rhett Rhinehart managed to get free down the wing and got off a wide-open shot from the top of the right face-off circle that just managed to elude Carl Tetachuk.
That goal proved to be the dagger, as Crnkovic scored an empty netter with 28.9 seconds to put things away.
Tetachuk finished the game with 25 saves, while Maier turned aside 32 for Saskatoon.
Now it’s back home for Game 5, and another shot to close things out.
“The fourth game is the hardest one to win for a reason,” O’Leary said. “You have a team with their back up against the wall and whether you're at home or you're on the road, desperate teams are hard to play against. It's another opportunity to win it but you don't want to keep turning it over to the next one. it's got to be done here Friday.”
Tickets are now on sale for Game 5 online at www.mjwarriors.ca and will be on sale in person beginning at 10 a.m. at Mosaic Place.