When the Moose Jaw Warriors took on the Saskatoon Blades in their first-round Western Hockey League playoff series, a major focus for the local squad was finding a way to limit Saskatoon’s lightning-fast transition game.
They were able to do just that, and in style, as they went on to five-game win in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final.
Now, the Warriors get to face the levelled-up version of the same style of game -- even more speed, more depth and more skill -- when they face the Winnipeg Ice in Game 1 of the second round tonight.
The game marks the end of a week of practice for both teams after wrapping up their series quickly -- Winnipeg also finished Prince Albert in five games -- and head coach Mark O’Leary’s crew is looking forward to the opportunity to hit the ice in the second round.
“We’re excited,” O’Leary said after practice on Wednesday afternoon. “It gets to be a bit of a long week at times, you get sick of practice, so we’re looking forward to getting on the road and getting things going and having a good series.”
One of the major things the Warriors focussed on during the week was their puck possession game, with a focus on making sure the decisions made keep the Ice from mounting their vaunted attack.
Winnipeg easily led the WHL in goals scored this season with 317, something that was a key component of their league-best 53-10-3-2 record that included six wins over the Warriors during the season series.
“We have to manage pucks properly,” O’Leary said. “I think if we get too cute in some areas, Winnipeg is going to make you pay, especially with their speed. Nobody transitions as fast as Winnipeg does, so we’ll have to make sure that when we do make a play, number one it’s being done firm and number two, get it in behind their D so they can’t come back on you in a hurry.”
Thing is, the Warriors know they can get the job done. Of Winnipeg’s 15 defeats this season, two belong to the Warriors, including a 5-4 shootout win back on Jan, 28 and 3-1 victory on Apr. 2. Moose Jaw also led 4-1 late before dropping a 5-4 decision on Oct. 23.
So the potential is there. The key will be to find a way to use what worked as opposed to the nights where things didn’t go well -- like their 10-2 loss on Oct. 20 and 8-1 loss on Mar. 29, both in Winnipeg.
“I think the biggest thing is there are going to be some waves coming,” O’Leary said. “They have offence, and even in games where we’ve beat them, they certainly had lots of looks and that’s why you have a goaltender. But if we ride those waves as well as we can and have, we’ll be right there in the end."
Rookie Zach Benson leads Winnipeg in playoff scoring with five goals and 10 points in their five games, Connor McClennon is second with four goals and eight points. Four players -- Mikey Milne, Owen Pederson, Jakin Smallwood and Benjamin Zloty -- had six points.
The Warriors were led by defenceman Denton Mateychuk with a goal and eight points, while Jagger Firkus and Max Wanner each had a goal and six points to go along with two goals and six from Brayden Yager. One of the first-round standouts, Atley Calvert, had a pair of goals and five points, as did recent NHL-signee Ryder Korczak.
The good news is the Warriors are starting to become a healthier bunch, too. Everyone skated in practice during the week -- including team captain Daemon Hunt, who continues to recover from a lower-body injury -- and while traditional playoff secrecy kept O’Leary from making any predictions, the hope is the Warriors will have some familiar faces back in the line-up.
“it’s definitely nice to see everyone skating,” O’Leary said. “We should know by Friday a little closer to game time who is all playing, so we’re getting there.”
Game 2 of the series goes on Friday night in Winnipeg before things revert back to Moose Jaw for Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Wednesday. Game 5, if necessary, is back in Winnipeg on Friday, May 13, Game 6 in Moose Jaw on Sunday, May 15 and Game 7 in Winnipeg on Tuesday, May 17.
Tickets are now on sale, and you can pick yours up at www.mjwarriors.ca.
The road games are also being broadcast locally, with fans welcome to visit Bugsy’s Irish Pub and the Crushed Can to take in all the action. Puck drop is 6 p.m. for all games in Winnipeg.