The Moose Jaw Warriors will begin their pursuit for the organization's first WHL Championship on Friday night, as they kick off their first-round playoff series against the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Moose Jaw finished the regular season with a 41-24-0-3 record earning them the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference and home-ice advantage through the first round of the playoffs.
For the Warriors, it may have felt like time was standing still getting ready for Game 1 on Friday, but head coach, Mark O’Leary says that his team is chomping at the bit to hit the ice.
“There’s a really good energy around the rink right now,” says O’Leary. “You work towards this all season long. We’re ready to go.”
A positive heading into Friday’s playoff opener is the return of goaltender Connor Ungar, defenseman Max Wanner, and rookies Marek Howell and Lynden Lakovic who all missed the final 17 regular season games due to suspensions.
“They’re ready to go and I think they’re a big part of the energy around the dressing room right now,” adds O’Leary. “I know the players are excited to have their buddies back. I know they’re looking to make an impact early on and it’s fun having the group back together.”
Before the suspension, Ungar was having a stand-out season with a record of 26-7-0-3 with a 2.58 GAA and a .925 SV%. His save percentage led all Eastern Conference netminders.
In addition, having Wanner return is a spark to the lineup, as his physical play will be relied on to set the tone in this series.
“He’s a player that’s made for this time of the year. He’s a little bit of a throwback to how he plays the physical game. His contributions on both ends of the ice are certainly something that we’ll welcome back.”
Moose Jaw’s game plan going into Game 1 is to try to match and counteract the Hurricanes' physicality.
"The games against them this year were playoff-style games, they make you work everything that you get, especially through the neutral zone. They have tried slowing us down at times, and that's a big part of it. In front of both nets, they are hard and heavy and physical team so we will have to be ready in those areas.
Though Moose Jaw had the advantage in the season series 3-1 against Lethbridge, the Hurricanes did not make it easy on them.
Two out of the four games were decided by two goals or less, with Moose Jaw’s biggest win coming on Feb. 21 in an 8-4 victory. Lethbridge’s only win in the season series came on Feb. 1 by a 4-1 decision on home ice.
“We found some success but it didn’t come easy all the time. The last game was a good one in terms of scoring lots of goals. Playoffs are a totally different animal and the home record was pretty good and we’re grateful to start at home here in the playoffs and start things off with a win.”
In the goal-scoring department, the Warriors have some weapons of their own. Leading the way this season for Moose Jaw was Jagger Firkus with 88 points including 40 goals, Brayden Yager with a career-high 78 points, and the hometown boy Atley Calvert who was also a 40-goal man and had 73 points.
Calvert also passed former Warrior player David Bararuk for the most goals scored by a Moose Jaw-born player with 40 on the season.
Game 1 goes Friday night at 7:00 p.m. at the Moose Jaw Events Centre followed by Game 2 on Saturday. Games 3 & 4 switch to Lethbridge on Tuesday and Wednesday, starting at 7:00 p.m.
You get your tickets at the Moose Jaw Event Centre Box Office or online.