First blood goes to the Moose Jaw Warriors.
Now the key will be to continue rolling along with what worked so well in Game 1 of their first-round Western Hockey League playoff series with the Saskatoon Blades.
The Warriors took a 2-0 lead out of the first period and led 3-1 through two before going on to a 5-1 victory at Mosaic Place on Friday night. The contest was the first playoff game for both teams in three years, and head coach Mark O’Leary was obviously happy with what he saw from his crew now that the intensity has been cranked to maximum.
“I think our guys were ready to go right from the start and I just thought that we established the races and battles mentality right from the get go,” O’Leary said outside a raucous Warriors dressing room. “We were first to loose pucks and we did a good job getting inside and winning those battles for possession and for those second opportunities. After that we got some puck luck when we needed it.”
Atley Calvert opened scoring in the game and the series, and it was the standard Atley Calvert fare -- seconds after he nearly scored from the top of the crease on a goalmouth scramble, the puck found its way back to the point. Martin Rysavy got off a shot and this time the Moose Jaw Minor Hockey product would make no mistake, tipping the puck past Blades goaltender Nolan Maier for the 1-0 lead at 10:02 of the first.
A little over a minute and a half later, Jagger Firkus found himself with time and space behind the net while on the power play. And with that, it was time to show off another facet of his already impressive skill set, channelling his inner Trevor Zegras and getting off a lacrosse-style goal to put the Warriors ahead 2-0.
“I think when you go for that goal if there’s someone on the opposite side of the net you’re not going to be able to get it up without them knocking it off your stick, so it was just the right time to try it,” Firkus said in explaining his Michigan. “I honestly don’t really try and practice it, I just picked it up and went for it and that’s all I can really remember from it.”
That the goal gave Moose Jaw a two-goal lead and exactly the start they were hoping for was an important factor in the game and also played into the ‘even keel’ ethos the team is shooting for throughout the playoffs.
“It was big for momentum obviously, and it’s something you can think a bit too much about, but I think our team did a really good job of just focusing on things and understanding that there was still a lot of game to be played,” Firkus said.
It didn’t take Saskatoon long to get one back after the second-period puck drop. Josh Pillar was in the right place at the right time after Charlie Wright took a shot from the point that bounced off the end boards, and a quick shot later, the Blades were within a goal with only 1:18 gone in the frame.
The Warriors kept up the pressure, though, and shortly after Alarie and Firkus had glorious scoring chances, Max Wanner finished one off, and it was as slick as they come. The Edmonton Oilers prospect broke in from the blueline, drove wide on the Blades defence and across the crease before lifting a backhand top corner. The marker came with 8:39 to play in the period in Wanner’s first game since missing a month with a lower-body injury.
“That was a big moment in the game, to answer right back there,” O’Leary said. “It's a different game if we don't score there, and we talked all the time all season long about getting up quick and punching back when things don't go your way. When you get scored on you want to answer right back and it was important that we were able to do that.”
Moose Jaw extended their lead to 4-1 4:49 into the third, with defenceman Majid Kaddoura overcoming a blocked shot to the upper body moments earlier to tee off a perfect blast from the point that found the top corner glove side on Maier.
Five minutes later, Ryder Korczak made it a four-goal lead, taking a feed from behind the net from Eric Alarie into the slot and beating Maier five-hole.
That was it for the winningest goaltender in WHL history, as Maier gave way to Ethan Chadwick after stopping 21 shots.
Tetachuk ended up turning in a solid performance at the other end of the ice, even if he was a lot less busy with only 19 saves on the night.
Alarie and Denton Mateychuk had a pair of assists each, while Korczak, Firkus and Wanner also had two-point nights.
With Game 1 in the rearview mirror, there’s little time to savour the performance -- the two teams are right back on the ice on Saturday night at Mosaic Place, and O’Leary will be looking for a similar, if even improved, showing.
“As a coach, you're always striving for perfection and you're not going get perfect, but there's always stuff that we can continue to work on,” he said. “We have to make sure we're managing pucks properly in certain situations, but we know we're going to have a better Saskatoon team tomorrow and we need to be a better Moose Jaw team as well.”
Puck drop is 7 p.m. at Mosaic Place.