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Warriors coach O’Leary looks back on wild weekend in Central Division

Western Hockey League club posts 1-2 record while seeing a little bit of everything in losses to Calgary and Edmonton and win over Red Deer
Warriors Brandon preseason Unger thumb
Warriors goaltender Jackson Unger picked up the team’s first shutout of the season in Red Deer on Friday night.
The Moose Jaw Warriors saw a little bit of everything on their trip through the Western Hockey League’s Central Division this past weekend.

Some of the worst puck luck this season in Calgary. One of their best efforts of the campaign in Red Deer. And nearly being crushed by stuffed animals in Edmonton.

It’s safe to safe the first couple months of the WHL campaign have been an adventure for the local squad, and that didn’t change on their most recent road trip -- a 7-1 loss in Calgary on Thursday, 4-0 win in Red Deer on Friday and 7-4 loss to Edmonton on Saturday.

“It certainly didn’t start the way we wanted to, but the biggest takeaway I’m going to take from the trip is how we responded to a pretty tough night in Calgary,” said Warriors head coach Mark O’Leary. “I thought we played one of our best games of the season in Red Deer against a very good team with a young 16-year-old in net and it was a fun night. Then even last night in Edmonton, for long stretches of the game I thought we looked like a really good team, we just had blips within the game that got away on us and made the difference.”

Against the Central Division-leading Oil Kings, the Warriors led 2-0 early and went toe-to-toe with the veteran-laden, playoff-built crew for much of the contest before Edmonton pulled away in the second period.

The difference ended up being a span in the first and second periods where the Oil Kings scored three goals in under three minutes, products of their veterancy and minor let-ups by the visitors.

“You can’t make it easy on the other team any time, but when it’s a team that prides themselves on their offence, they’re going to take advantage,” O’Leary said. “We battled back, even up to exchanging goals back and forth at 4-4, but their power play was better than ours and our penalty kill would like to have a couple of those back, for sure.”

Eric Alarie scored twice for the Warriors, while Logan Doust had a goal and an assist and Jagger Firkus scored their other marker. Majid Kaddoura added two assists.

The contest was delayed by half an hour at 6:13 of the first period when Edmonton scored their Teddy Bear Toss goal, leading to over 12,000 bears raining down on the ice in the annual event.

“It’s a different kind of night,” O’Leary said of the Teddy Bear Toss game in an NHL city. “It’s a bigger crowd, too, there were over 13,000 people there in Edmonton and that gives the players a little bit of extra juice. It was a fun game other than the result, that’s for sure, and all in all, there were quite a few positives from that game and on the trip as a whole.”
Jackson Unger 37 had saves in the loss.

Not 24 hours earlier, there was no beating the 16-year-old netminder, as he stopped all 30 shots he faced for his first career shutout -- on Red Deer’s Teddy Bear Toss night, on top of it all.

“We don’t even really talk about the Teddy Bear Toss as a coaching staff with the players, it’s just ‘go about your business’,” O’Leary said. “We certainly did that, led by Jackson Unger, and it was just a great night for him.”

Firkus scored twice in the win, while team captain Daemon Hunt also had a pair of goals. Brayden Yager had a pair of assists.

In Calgary, everything that could go wrong did go wrong, with the only respite coming from a shut-out snapping goal from Doust midway through the third period with Calgary leading 7-0.

“It was a combination of a bunch of things. I didn’t like our energy levels and puck management, we gave them opportunities just by decisions we were making with the puck,” O’Leary said. “But when you watch the game again, three of their goals early on were right after a glorious scoring chance for us and they’d come down and put it in our net.

“It’s execution in big moments and we’ve talked about that before, in Brandon, in Prince Albert, in Swift Current, these are games we’ve ended up losing in similar circumstances where we don’t capitalize on chances early… momentum is a crazy thing, when you have it, you want to keep it.”

Carl Tetachuk made 10 saves in the first before giving way to Unger, who stopped 13 the rest of the way.

The Warriors are now 11-12-1-1 on the season and sit in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, three points back of Saskatoon for fourth and one up on Brandon in fifth.

“We’ve set ourselves up to be in a real good spot,” O’Leary said. “We’re sitting in the middle of the pack of the conference, and it’s decision time. Do you want to just play around and hang around a playoff spot or do you want to solidify one and keep some separation from the bottom of the pile so the playoffs aren’t in doubt and you can start chasing the teams ahead of you? You look at Saskatoon just ahead of us, but Brandon is also nipping at our heels, so it’s a fun place to be in and we’re only in December.”

The Warriors are back in action Wednesday when they host the Brandon Wheat Kings. Game time is 7 p.m. at Mosaic Place.