Written by Cami Kepke/WHL.ca

Saginaw, Mich.—The Moose Jaw Warriors’ historic season has come to an end in Saginaw.

The WHL Champions have exited the tournament after a 7-1 semifinal loss to the host Saginaw Spirit.

“We’re sad that we didn’t win our last game of the year,” Warriors Head Coach Mark O’Leary said. “But at the same time, when the dust settles here, you can be upset that we lost here tonight, but be upset that you don’t get to do it again with the group of guys that you did. I know it’s a tight-knit group. And at the end of the day, you’re champions and nothing will ever change that. So I’m extremely proud. It’s the most fun I’ve had in hockey and it’s a pleasure to come to the rink every day with this group.”

This marks the final CHL game for graduating players Lucas Brenton, alternate captain Atley Calvert and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Martin Rysavy.

“It’s been a privilege and pleasure to wear the Warriors crest and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys to deal with,” Calvert said. “This one hurts right now, but you look back at the year in a couple of days here and you’ll have a different feeling. Growing up with the group and going through pains and struggles and I mean… This is tough. But again, I couldn’t ask for a better group.”

Saginaw led from the jump, riding the energy of the crowd of nearly 5,000 at the Dow Event Center.

Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Ethan Hay struck just over three minutes in with a one-timer from the hash marks destined for the short side of the net.

Moose Jaw appeared to level the score less than a minute later by burying on the team’s first shot of the game, but towering veteran Lucas Brenton’s marker was called back after a coach’s challenge for goaltender interference.

The Warriors would strike for real midway through the first frame off a brilliant solo effort by WHL Player of the Year Jagger Firkus.

Firkus broke up a Saginaw pass in the Moose Jaw zone and bolted down the wing, lofting a backhand shot past Andrew Oke.

But the Warriors would be overwhelmed by a five-goal second period by the home side.

Spirit Captain Braden Hache started the onslaught with a shot that tipped off the stick of a Warriors defender and past Jackson Unger to put Saginaw back on top.

Two minutes later, Josh Bloom (Vancouver) dished for Owen Beck (Montreal) with a no-look, behind-the-back pass, setting his teammate up for a magnificent wrister to double the lead.

Lincoln Moore made it 5-1 with a tight shot from the corner before Hay added his second of the night after finding himself alone in the Warriors’ slot.

Sebastien Gervais closed out the period by corralling a rebound off the pad of Unger, drifting below the goal line, and tucking it behind the netminder to make it 6-1 with 20 minutes to play.

Saginaw kept the gas pedal down in the third period with Rodwin Dionicio (Anaheim) picking a corner after a strong drive into the Warriors zone, capping off the scoring for a final result of 7-1.

The Spirit will face the OHL Champion London Knights in the final match on Sunday, June 2.

While the sting of coming within one game of the Memorial Cup final is still fresh, the Warriors were able to appreciate the new ground they broke this season, culminating in a franchise-first WHL Championship victory.

“Everybody knows that we accomplished a lot this year,” Mateychuk said. “We didn’t get to our end goal of bringing home the Memorial Cup but there’s lots of things to be proud of in this group.

It’s been an absolute blast going through all these years with these guys pretty much growing up with them and becoming best friends, brothers. It’s been the best years of my life so far and I’ve enjoyed every minute with these guys and didn’t take any of it for granted.”

However, some Moose Jaw players might not be leaving Saginaw empty-handed.

The Canadian Hockey League Award winners and All-Star Teams will be announced on Saturday, May 31.

Captain Denton Mateychuk (WHL Defenceman of the Year), Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Brayden Yager (WHL Most Sportsmanlike Player) and Seattle Kraken prospect Jagger Firkus (CHL Top Scorer, WHL Player of the Year).