Experience key to Ice playoff run
Lessons learned from coming up short in 2022 help fuel post-season success
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What a difference a year makes.
This time last year, the Winnipeg Ice watched their season slip away as the juggernaut Edmonton Oil Kings ran away with a 4-1 series win in the Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference final en route to eventually winning the junior league crown.
The Ice are in the conference final again, but this time hold a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series against the Saskatoon Blades and can take a stranglehold Tuesday night on the road. Game 3 is slated for 8 p.m. (CT), with Game 4 set for Wednesday at 8 p.m. (CT).
A wealth of experience and talent has carried the team to this point, indeed. The team has also better adapted to playoff hockey by taking advantage of key moments when they happen, said head coach James Patrick.
“We felt we couldn’t play as complete a game as Edmonton (last year),” he said Monday, before the team boarded the bus for Saskatoon. “We couldn’t play a game where you need to win 50-50 battles, which is playoff hockey. It’s something we talked about from last year on, we’ve made a commitment to being better in those areas.
“At the same time, it’s a different team, you’re playing different competition. I think we can learn from how we had to play last year, what it takes to be successful in the playoffs. I think we had a real good lesson last year on that — we’ve tried to apply it, we’ve tried to be a stronger team, we’ve tried to get stronger over the course of the year.”
Helping matters is the fact the Ice are about as fresh as a team can be at this point in the season. The club has lost just two of 12 post-season contests, making quick work of the Medicine Hat Tigers in a first-round sweep before steam-rolling the Warriors in Moose Jaw in Game 6 of the second round.
The second-seeded Saskatoon squad, meanwhile, hasn’t had as breezy a time. Both of the club’s playoff series required seven games to reach a decision, the latest ending a couple of days before they jumped on a bus for Game 1 against Winnipeg (a 3-0 defeat).
“I think the first game, I really felt (the Blades) were coming off their seven-game series, getting on the bus — they played 14 games in what seems like 20 days… then turn around and get on a bus and play a game. I just didn’t feel like they had their usual energy in Game 1,” Patrick said.
“They were much better in Game 2, the chances were closer but we’re at our best when we focus on defence first. If our forwards track back as well as possible — I mean I think that’s your work-ethic indicator, how hard you back check. When we’re at our best, we’re doing that as good as can be.”
Matthew Savoie paces Winnipeg with 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists), fifth-year forward Connor McClennon also has 10 tallies, while defenceman Ben Zloty is tied for the league lead in assists (16).
McClennon is coming off his most productive game of the playoffs, netting a hat-trick in Game 2 to spark the Ice to a dominant 6-2 victory over the Blades. The difference in the team this year, he maintained, has been a better understanding of the effort that’s required each night if the club is to advance to the WHL championship.
“Obviously, it’s not easy anytime you (lose) a series, but I think last year we just got used to winning and I wouldn’t say we earned it, per se,” said McClennon. “We would get away with some times where we didn’t play so well and we’d be able to get the win. Right now, we’re playing well, we’re winning, we’re doing things the right way, and I think that goes to show why we’re getting rewarded right now.
The Ice penalty kill struggled mightily against the Tigers and Warriors, working at just a 55.56 per cent efficiency, however, it’s tightened up considerably in the conference final, yielding just one goal on 11 Blades’ power-play opportunities.
Goaltender Daniel Hauser has been the best penalty killer of them all and has been tough for the Blades to figure out. It’s been that way since he was pulled from Game 3 in Moose Jaw after allowing three goals on eight shots in the opening 15 minutes of the contest. Since then, the netminder has been rock-solid, allowing just eight goals in the last five games while stopping 123 of 131 shots he’s faced.
Hauser isn’t looking too far ahead but understands his team is on the brink of something special.
“It would be awesome (to reach the final). It’s a big goal of ours and they’re a good team, they’re not going to shy away easy,” said Hauser. “We’re focused on one game at a time, one play at a time, one period at a time.
“Right now, our goal is just to go to Saskatoon and focus on our first game there and hope all goes well and we’ll take it from there.”
In the WHL’s Western Conference, the Seattle Thunderbirds have a 2-0 lead on the Kamloops Blazers in their best-of-seven series.
The Blazers host Game 3 Tuesday night.
Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.