The Moose Jaw Warriors have been waiting for Friday night for a good long while now.
Talking to members of the team after games over the last few weeks, all conversations have revolved around preparing for the Western Hockey League playoffs and what the Warriors hope will be a good, long, multiple-round run through the post-season.
It’s all led to the final week of practice prior to Game 1 against the Lethbridge Hurricanes, with the Warriors in an exceptional frame of mind right from the get-go -- and for good reason.
“It starts with our energy,” said Warriors head coach Mark O’Leary. “The buzz around the dressing room and on the ice in practice has been really good and the coaches are happy with the execution and the attention to details. That’s all you can ask for and now we’re ready to go for real.”
Of course, a major factor in the positivity is the host of reinforcements the team has received -- goaltender Connor Ungar, defenceman Max Wanner, defenceman Marek Howell and forward Lynden Lakovic have all served the final games of what amounted to a 17-game suspension, and have been back with the team practicing and preparing for Game 1.
“I think they’re a big part of the renewed energy around the rink right now,” O’Leary said. “They’re a big part of our team, they have been to this point and any success we find in the playoffs, they’re going to be a big part of it. They look the same way they did when they left our group and that’s great to see.”
Ungar is expected to be one of the biggest factors, as the overage netminder was putting together all-star numbers before the suspension hit. As O’Leary alluded to, he’s looked just as sharp in net since returning to the team -- and the hope is the time off will have what was one of the busiest goaltenders in the WHL well rested for the post-season.
“It’s all in how you look at it,” O’Leary said. “Any time something happens, there are both positive and negative things and one of the ones is he’s rested, he’s fresh and he’s chomping at the bit wanting to make a difference. So Connor looks really good and he’ll be ready to go Friday.”
The situation is much the same for the other three players, too. The Warriors opted not to have the foursome available to the media in the lead-up to Game 1, with all comments reserved until after the opening game.
“They’re certainly happy to be back with their buddies and playing hockey at an important part of the year and we’re looking forward to seeing them back out there in a game,” O’Leary said.
The Warriors capped the regular season with a 41-24-0-3 record and in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, seven points better than fifth-place Lethbridge at 36-26-3-3. Moose Jaw also won the season series three-games-to-one, with a 4-3 win at home on Oct. 15, 5-3 win in Lethbridge on Jan. 4, 4-1 loss to the Hurricanes on Feb, 1 and 8-4 Warriors victory back home on Feb, 21.
The playoffs are always a different animal, though, and the regular-season results are only a basic gauge of what could happen.
“I know last year our record against Saskatoon wasn’t great heading into the playoffs and it wasn’t something we worried about,” said O’Leary, who saw his crew win in five games over the Blades before falling in five to Winnipeg. “This year, we know what we’re up against with Lethbridge. They’re a team that’s built for the post-season, they’re hard, they’re heavy and they make things really difficult through the neutral zone and in front of both nets. Those are areas we’re going to have to be diligent in terms of managing pucks and competing for pucks,”
Game 2 of the series is on Saturday at the Moose Jaw Events Centre, with Games 3 and 4 in Lethbridge on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. Game 5 is back in Moose Jaw on Friday, Apr. 7, Game 6 in Lethbridge on Saturday, Apr. 8 and the deciding contest on Tuesday, Apr. 11. The final three games are all if necessary.
“The only thing we’re talking about right now is winning Game 1, and there are a lot of teams that are in the same position,” O’Leary said. “Just in our division alone, the parity is really good, we’ve seen it all season long and we’re one of many teams with an opportunity to win some games… now we want to come out of the gate with some excitement and energy to start at home.”
All game times at the Moose Jaw Events Centre are 7 p.m. and tickets are available at www.sasktix.ca.