When the Western Hockey League playoffs started, the vast majority of those making predictions looked at the series between the Moose Jaw Warriors and Saskatoon Blades as one that was all but certain to go to seven games.
What no one could have predicted was just how much of a jump the Warriors would take in their game right from the opening puck drop.
Regardless of the score or how much momentum the Blades had, Moose Jaw always seemed to find a way to keep pressing. And when things did turn against them, the Warriors almost always seemed to have an answer -- and that played precisely into what head coach Mark O'Leary had been looking for from his team heading into the postseason: resiliency, drive and a never-say-die attitude in every situation.
Now, after their five-game win in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final, the Warriors are off to the second round of the playoffs.
“Yeah, it was really good,” said Warriors forward and Moose Jaw Minor Hockey product Atley Calvert. “We obviously wanted to get it done in four, but we were still able to get it done in five, which is the biggest thing. I think we battled hard and we deserve this time off that we’re getting here.”
While Denton Mateychuk led the Warriors in scoring in the first round with a goal and eight points through the five games, it was Calvert who drew plenty of attention as things played out. The 18-year-old forward’s hard-nosed style played havoc with the Blades defenders all series, and if not for some bad puck luck, he’d have far more than his two goals and five points.
It all led to head coach Mark O’Leary slotting Calvert onto a line with high-scoring forwards Jagger Firkus and Brayden Yager for Game 5.
“He was there for a reason,” O’Leary said. “I think he was probably our best overall player start to finish in the first round and he brings a special element to any line that he plays on and we certainly saw that here in [Game 5].”
Now, with Saskatoon behind them, the focus turns to what will undoubtedly be a far more difficult task ahead -- either the Eastern Conference regular-season champion Winnipeg Ice or Central Division champion Edmonton Oil Kings in the second round.
The Warriors have seen success against both teams this season, though -- with a 3-1 win over Winnipeg at the beginning of April one of the most impressive wins of the season for the team -- and as a result, the plan going forward won’t change.
“It doesn't matter who we're playing, it has to be more about us,” O’Leary said. “Certainly there are some things we can pre-scout with whoever we’re playing, but at the end of the day we just need to do what we can as well as we can.”
Of course, in the continuous quest for hockey perfection, there’s always something to improve on. Even with their first-round success, that’s no different this time around.
“I think number one is puck management,” O’Leary said. “They’re learning here how big moments in the game are, how when the puck is on your stick it could be the most important play of the game and you just have to make sure that you do it firm and make the make the best play that you can at the moment.”
Regardless of who they face, the Warriors will have the next week off to recuperate from a spate of nagging injuries in the first round. The team didn’t have Eric Alarie or Riley Niven for Game 5, and both are day-to-day, as is captain Daemon Hunt, who has missed more than a month with a lower-body injury. While traditional playoff secrecy kept O’Leary from making any predictions, the hope is all could return soon.
“Yeah, we're a little banged up, so the guys certainly deserve a couple of days off here to refresh and recharge, and we'll reset be ready to go,” O’Leary said. “Hopefully guys that are banged up are a little bit more healthy and ready to go next weekend.”
The Warriors’ second-round opponent will be decided by who wins the series between the Red Deer Rebels and Brandon Wheat Kings, with a Rebels win giving the Warriors the Ice, and a Brandon win giving Moose Jaw the Oil Kings. Game 6 of that series is slated for Sunday in Brandon, with Red Deer leading 3-2.