Moose Jaw Warriors goaltender Jackson Unger has had more than his share of detractors since the start of the season, but slowly and surely has won win fans over with a string of steady showings.
If his performances the last two games don’t bring folks all the way into the fold, then nothing will.
A few nights after facing 55 shots while backstopping the Warriors to a win in Prince Albert, Unger turned in a 32-save performance on his way to his first shutout of the season as the Warriors took a 4-0 victory over the Swift Current Broncos.
The Warriors improved to 15-10-0-1 with the win and are back within two points of second-place Saskatoon and three of first-place Medicine Hat in the race for top spot in the Western Hockey League Eastern Conference.
“Oh yeah, it’s definitely nice,” Unger said with a huge grin. “I think I’ve had a lot of good games this year and tonight was just a well-rounded game by the entire team. They allowed me to make the easy saves and then I was able to get to the harder ones when I had to, so it was really good.”
The offensive support certainly didn’t hurt either, and Brayden Yager played a huge role in that. The Pittsburgh Penguins prospect scored a goal in each period for his first hat trick of the campaign, giving him 15 goals on the season.
“It was nice to put a couple in, but I think the biggest thing was bouncing back,” Yager said, referring to their 6-3 loss to the Broncos at home last Friday. “The last time we played them it kind of left a bad taste in our mouth and it’s nice to come back like that and get the win.”
Yager got things going 4:06 into the game, taking a pass along the boards from Pavel McKenzie and breaking all alone to the front of the net before putting a shot past Broncos goaltender Joe Rocha.
Both Rocha and Unger had solid periods the rest of the way, with Unger making a handful of big saves on goalmouth scrambles late in the period and Rocha turning aside Jagger Firkus on a breakaway as time ran down.
Yager would finally break through with the Warriors’ second goal at 6:48 and it was a nifty one. The Pittsburgh Penguins prospect took a shot on goal, broke behind the net and picked up his rebound on the other side before putting a diving shot under Rocha’s left pad.
Firkus and Denton Mateychuck connected on a slick bit of passing for the Warriors’ third goal, shorthanded to boot. The WHL’s leading scorer found Mateychuk with a backhand pass and took the give-and-go into the high slot, from where he put a shot top shelf blocker side at 12:42.
After a back-and-forth start to the third, the Warriors severely tilted the ice for the rest of the period, hemming the Broncos in their own zone for an extended stretch, and that led to a rare occasion for Unger: he faced only seven shots in the frame, one of the few times this season he’s had single-digit shots in a period.
Neither team scored until late in the final frame, but that’s not to say there weren’t any dramatics -- Unger took a shot at the open net as time ran down, but a Broncos defender would knock the puck out of the air as it appeared to be on track toward the goal.
A minute later, Yager capped his hat trick, taking an unselfish pass from Atley Calvert and beating his man to the net for the tap in to make it 4-0 with 1:01 to play.
Seeing such an improved performance defensively compared to their previous outing against the Broncos was naturally a positive.
“Our coaches were all about checking and I think we did a pretty good job of that,” Yager said. “If we play hard and play to our strengths, with good checking and tracking and puck management as well, we’re going to be in pretty good hands. We did a pretty good job of that night and it worked out.”
The Warriors are back in action for a two-game set in Alberta this weekend, as they’re in Red Deer on Friday and Edmonton on Saturday. With back-to-back solid performances under their belt, the local crew will be looking to keep things going and finally put together a bit of a win streak.
“I think we have a stretch here where they could be winnable games if we play like we can, and if we can stay consistent we should have some good results,” Unger said.