The Western Hockey League season has come to an end for the Moose Jaw Warriors.
But they didn’t let the Winnipeg Ice have an easy time of it in Game 5 on Saturday night at Wayne Fleming Arena.
The Warriors scored two goals early, but couldn’t hold off a steady and continuous Winnipeg attack in the second and third periods, eventually dropping a 6-3 decision to fall four-games-to-one in their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
“We got the start we wanted and we were ready to go, and it was an emotional night,” said Warriors head coach Mark O’Leary. “There were just some unfortunate breaks, the ups and downs of a hockey game, and to Winnipeg’s credit, they have a hell of a team and they capitalize on those opportunities.
“But I can’t get upset at all with the effort and the resiliency our guys showed right to the end.”
Moose Jaw had some good news prior to the start of the game as captain Daemon Hunt made his return to the line-up after missing more than a month with a leg injury.
O’Leary had said 48 hours earlier that Hunt’s return would be important to the team, and his presence alone looked in the early going as if it was going to pay major dividends.
“We’re a better team with him in the line-up, that’s for sure, and I just really appreciate him battling through the injury that he had and jumping headfirst into the series,” O’Leary said. “That showed an awful lot and I know the team appreciated it too.”
The Warriors went into the game having given up early goals in both previous meetings in Winnipeg, but it was Moose Jaw’s turn to strike early in Game 5.
Ryder Korczak outraced an Ice defender to the puck after a turnover at the Winnipeg blueline and got off a perfect shot high glove side to beat Daniel Hauser and give the Warriors a 1-0 lead only 46 seconds in.
That early goal was just a harbinger of things to come as the period progressed, as the Warriors used a relentless attack that created a slew of scoring chances throughout the opening 20 minutes.
The Warriors finally broke through with a second goal with 4:08 to go in the frame, as Denton Mateychuk hit Thomas Tien with a slick drop pass from behind the goal line, and Tien would roof the puck blocker side to make it 2-0.
Moose Jaw got a little too fancy in their end 1:12 later, and Matthew Benson would force a turnover at the side of the net before tucking the puck in behind Warriors starter Carl Tetachuk.
O’Leary felt that goal was a gamechanger, as instead of the Warriors having another goal or two on the board because of their relentless pressure, the Ice were suddenly back in the game.
“But we went shot for shot with them and it was another game where we had enough scoring chances to win,” he said.
A late power play in the first gave Winnipeg momentum to start the second period and they made the most of it, with Matthew Savoie scoring 1:39 into the frame to tie the game seconds after the man advantage ended.
Winnipeg completely tilted the ice from there and was rewarded for a steady string of chances when a botched line change allowed Cole Muir to go in on a long breakaway, with the Ice veteran eventually outduelling a Warriors defender in front to make it 3-2 with 8:48 to go in the second.
Winnipeg struck again three minutes later. Carson Lambos hit Chase Wheatcroft with a long-distance pass from deep in his own end all the way to the Warriors blueline, creating a 2-on-1 that ended with Connor Geekie putting in a cross-crease pass.
The Warriors received their first power play of the game with four minutes to play in the second, and Atley Calvert would make the Ice pay, tipping home Mateychuk’s point shot from the slot to get Moose Jaw back within one.
Winnipeg again made it a two-goal game 3:30 into the final period, and it was the product of a bad turnover that went right to Savoie at the Warriors blueline, with his long shot beating Tetachuk low stick side to make it a 5-3 game.
Milne then added an empty netter with 1:32 remaining to close out the scoring with a shorthanded goal.
Tetachuk would finish the game with 22 saves on the night in his final Western Hockey League game, as he joined forward Cordel Larson and defenceman Majid Kaddoura as graduating overagers for the Warriors.
Looking back on the series, O’Leary would naturally have liked to have seen a better showing in the first two games -- but when it comes to the bigger picture, he’s confident the 10 games of playoff experience will pay off when next season’s loaded-for-bear crew hits the ice.
“You try and learn from those things, and at the end of the day, we have most of our team coming back next year and they’ll have that experience,” O’Leary said. “They’ve seen how these playoff games work now, and that experience should bode well for us going forward.”
Winnipeg advances to the Eastern Conference final against the Edmonton Oil Kings beginning next Friday.