Warriors top Blades to win WHL playoff series in five games

It’s an 18th birthday Jagger Firkus won’t forget.

The Moose Jaw Warriors forward had two goals and an assist, propelling his team to a 6-4 victory over the Saskatoon Blades and earning their ticket to the second round of the WHL playoffs.

“(The birthday) was good. Going into this game, we wanted to get them out tonight and that was all I had in mind, just to go into this game and win,” Firkus said. “When I throw the puck, it goes in. That’s what I thought going into this game: just shoot the puck from everywhere.”

But as the Warriors celebrate and continue their season, the Blades’ streak has come to an end.

“They are a good hockey team and they are very talented. We started a little slow (in the series) and got better every game,” Saskatoon head coach Brennan Sonne said. “We just put two (goals) deep and we had no margin for error. I will say that we fought all the way to the end. You go down 2-0 fast and then you struggle and then you go down 3-2. I’m still proud of the guys.”

The Warriors, who finished just one point ahead of the Blades in the regular season standings, won all three games they played at Mosaic Place in the best-of-the-round series. The Warriors won Game 3 in Saskatoon while the Blades kept their season alive in Game 4.

“You work all season and it’s a long season and you’re playing for something — home-field advantage is definitely one of them,” Warriors head coach Mark O’Leary said. “It turned out to be a big factor in this series and I think any team will say they feel more comfortable playing at home. For us, that is certainly the case.”
The Warriors were the first to find the back of the net on Friday, with Brayden Yager’s pass behind Blades goalie Nolan Maier finding Jagger Firkus in the slot. Firkus shot into the back of the net.

Later in the period, during a high-stick minor double to Saskatoon’s Brandon Lisowsky, Denton Mateychuk fired a puck past Maier 13 seconds into the man’s lead.

The Blades pulled within one with a power play goal of their own, with Lisowsky firing a shot into the net but hitting teammate Josh Pillar in front of Moose Jaw goalie Carl Tetachuk. The puck went up into the air, and as he fell, Moose Jaw’s Calder Anderson tried to swat him out of harm’s way, but the puck landed in the back of the net.

In the second frame, the Blades were able to get within one, with Josh Pillar scoring.

The Warriors scored another after Majid Kaddoura’s pass found Thomas Tien, who got behind the Blades defenders and hit a shot past Maier.

Saskatoon once again moved within a goal, with Trevor Wong outpointing Tetachuk with a puck.

But Atley Calvert ended the series after a rebound from Maier ended up in the slot and on the post for the Warriors, who scored the fifth goal of the game for the hosts.

O’Leary said the team’s ability to remain calm as opposing teams approach the finish line speaks to the mindset they’ve had all season.

“When you get knocked down, you have to get up fast and hit back,” O’Leary said.

Robert Baco added a goal on an empty goal to complete the scoring.

For the Blades, it marked the end of their seasons and the end of Tristen Robins, Rhett Rhinehart and Maier’s careers in the WHL.

“It’s tough, but at least they made it to the playoffs. The last two groups didn’t even have that. While we’re sad that they’re gone, that’s what it’s all about: we’re trying to develop human beings and hockey players at the same time,” Sonne said. “They are in the next chapter of their lives.”

“It meant a lot (playing in the playoffs). We had a couple of unlucky years with COVID all over. Sharing this experience and going to war with these guys every night is an experience like no other,” said Robins.

After the game, all of the Blades players lined up to shake Maier’s hand after his final WHL game. He comes out as the WHL’s all-time wins leader.

“He’s the best to put on a Blades jersey and one of the best to be among the poles in this league,” Robins said.

The Warriors will play the Winnipeg Ice in the next round if the Red Deer Rebels win their series against the Brandon Wheat Kings. If Brandon wins, Moose Jaw will face the Edmonton Oil Kings.

“We prepare by trying to get healthy and take a little bit of rest here,” O’Leary said. “Whether you’re playing in Edmonton or Winnipeg, you’re playing against a team that’s built to win right now and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

And O’Leary hopes the team can keep up the victories and allow captain Daemon Hunt to return to the lineup.

“It is our responsibility to keep this long enough to see it again. Him, Eric Alarie and Riley Niven, all three of us will see how it looks this week, and we hope to see them soon in the lineup,” O’Leary said.


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