The Moose Jaw Warriors simply had no answer for the Winnipeg Ice for the vast majority of their Western Hockey League Eastern Conference semifinal opener on Friday night.
The Ice scored early in every period, carried the play the entire game with the exception of a few minutes here and there and cruised to a 6-1 victory to open the best-of-seven series in Winnipeg.
It was almost as far as possible from the kind of start Warriors head coach Mark O’Leary wanted to see, especially with how quickly Winnipeg took control of the game and kept control.
“We know they’re a hell of a team, they came right at us from the opening faceoff and I thought we were the second best team right from the get go,” O’Leary said. “It started with races and battles, we talk about it all the time, Winnipeg just won more of those and when you have that much skill and have the puck for that much of the game, you’re going to be able to score some goals.”
While a lot of pre-series talk surrounded the speed of the Ice and their ability to get up ice on the rush, it was sheer dogged determination and hard work that led to most of their goals on the night.
“As skilled as they are, I think their work habits are just as impressive,” O’Leary said. “They drive the net, they stop in front, they’re heavy on pucks, all the details of the game, they do that well. Couple that with the skill level they have and they’re going to get opportunities.”
The Ice needed only 18 seconds to open scoring in the series, as Owen Pederson got a one-timer off from the blueline that found its way through a ton of traffic in front of Carl Tetachuk before finding the back of the net.
The Warriors had a handful of chances through the rest of the first, but the Ice was decidedly tilted in Winnipeg’s favour, and they’d strike again on their first power play with just over three minutes remaining in the first. Jack Finley finished off a rush after taking a pass from Pederson to the side of the net, giving the Ice a 2-0 edge.
Winnipeg ended up outshooting the Warriors 13-3 in first 20 minutes.
Things didn’t change in the early part of the second, and Jakin Smallwood made it 3-0 Winnipeg 57 seconds in. Tetachuk made the initial save on a 2-on-1, but a Warriors defender cleared the puck right into the crease, giving Smallwood the chance to knock the puck into the open net.
By the five minute mark of the second period, Winnipeg had as many goals as the Warriors had shots on Winnipeg goaltender Daniel Hauser.
Matthew Savoie then made it a four-goal Winnipeg lead at 10:11, finishing off a great individual effort by Connor Geekie, who got off a backhand pass at the side of the net and found a streaking Savoie at the side of the net.
Pederson made it 5-0 Winnipeg at 14:14, finishing off a tic-tac-toe passing play with Finley and Connor McClennon.
Tetachuk showed he still had a lot of fight left in him with just over two minutes left in the period, when he made a diving stick save on a puck about to cross the goal line during an Ice power play.
Jackson Unger took over in goal for the Warriors in the third, and Winnipeg took only 11 seconds to score on him. Mikey Milne made it 6-0 after Cole Muir went in off the opening face-off, beat a Warriors defender wide and fed the puck back to Milne, who picked the puck out of three Warriors in front and put it into the open net.
Moose Jaw had a 5-on-3 power play for 1:43 early in the third, but couldn’t make anything of it despite numerous chances and a couple of hit posts.
The Warriors finally got something going with 2:12 remaining in the game, and it was Brayden Yager who snapped Hauser’s shut-out bid with a great individual effort that saw him go in on a Winnipeg defender before finding an opening and roofing a shot blocker high.
That his team was able to get something going in the later stages of the game is something O’Leary hopes to build on heading into Game 2.
“We’ll go over some things here on video, there were some learning opportunities for sure and at the same time we finished the game with some positives and we’ll draw on those tomorrow,” he said. “There are very few guys in the room who can say they played well tonight, and the result shows that. We just need to be better as individuals tomorrow and we’ll be better as a team.”
And that goes back to the whole ‘next game up’ ethos the team has carried throughout the postseason
“That’s the good thing about playoffs,” O’Leary said. “You don’t have any time to feel sorry for yourself, you have to pick yourself up and punch back in a hurry. That’s what we’re here to do, we’ll get another crack at it tomorrow.”
Tetachuk had 24 saves in his two periods of work, Unger stopped five shots in the third. The Warriors had 19 shots on Hauser.
Game 2 of the series goes at 6 p.m. Saturday from Wayne Fleming Arena in Winnipeg.