A team that couldn’t buy a goal on home ice became the team that wouldn’t be denied Sunday night.
Facing Saskatoon in a pair of weekend games, the Winnipeg Ice made short work of the Blades, who are thought to be legitimate contenders for a division title in the Western Hockey League’s East.
The Ice cruised to a 4-1 win Saturday and added a convincing 7-2 decision Sunday night at Wayne Fleming Arena. Winnipeg is 6-4-1-0, while Saskatoon dropped to 7-6-0-1.
"I think we’re playing a lot more physical and just playing more simple." - Ice forward Brad Ginnell
So, what brought about the turnaround after three consecutive home losses to start the season? Winnipeg scored early in both games and kept the heat on, building a 4-1 lead after 20 minutes and a 5-1 edge after two periods Sunday night.
There were a number of standouts for the home side, but no one more prominent than veteran left-winger Brad Ginnell, who scored twice and added an assist in the Ice’s third consecutive victory. Ginnell and his teammates also responded well to the physical challenge issued by the veteran Blades, avoiding bad penalties while outshooting Saskatoon 45-30.
"I think we’re playing a lot more physical and just playing more simple," Ginnell said. "I think there was a bit of a feeling-out period in this barn, but I think we’ve got it down pat now and we’ll be good moving forward."
Ginnell potted his third and fourth of the season, Jakin Smallwood, with his third and Jackson Leppard, with his second of the season and first since being acquired by the Ice Saturday afternoon, staked the hosts to a 4-0 lead 16:15 into the opening frame.
"To get that first (win) out of the way at home — that was amazing for us," Ginnell added. "We celebrated for 15 minutes in the room after, but then it was back to business so we could do it again tonight."
Ginnell and Leppard both scored on a suddenly reinvigorated power play, which also provided two goals in Saturday’s triumph.
Leppard, acquired from the Prince George Cougars for two players and three draft picks 24 hours earlier, was expected to provide toughness and experience at centre. He took a roughing minor 1:13 into the game, but Winnipeg killed the penalty and proceeded to take the game to the visitors.
"Yeah, maybe a little too amped up, I guess," a grinning Leppard said of the early penalty. "That’s hockey. I took six penalty minutes tonight — didn’t expect that, but one of them was on a broken stick, but whatever. I didn’t drop it soon enough... I thought the game went pretty good for a first one."
"It’s a new organization and they’ve got the great facilities here and I was told we’re a pretty skilled team, which we definitely showed it tonight. I’m really excited to be here, get a change and meet some new faces." - Jackson Leppard, on his second goal of the season and first as a member of the Ice
Ice head coach James Patrick appreciated the edge in Leppard’s game.
"I wasn’t worried because I know those things happen," Patrick said. "A guy gets to a new team, he’s full of vim and vigour and he wants to make an impression. You hope it wouldn’t be that early, but I just liked the heavy body... They’ve got their 19- and 20-year-old line that can be real physical and he matched (Saskatoon’s Chase) Wouters and (Ryan) McKay. I think that’s important."
Wouters answered for the Blades on the power play just before the intermission, but the hosts regained the four-goal lead in the second period when Owen Pederson slammed home his third of the season. In the third period, Nino Kinder added his fourth of the year and rookie blue-liner Anson McMaster closed scoring with his first career WHL marker.
Saskatoon’s Riley McKay scored a late goal to close out scoring.
Jesse Makaj continued his rock-solid play in the Winnipeg net, posting his third win in his first four appearances since returning to the club after a lengthy bout with mononucleosis.
Makaj, who stopped 16 shots Sunday, has allowed only four goals in his past eight-plus periods of action.
Koen MacInnes made 29 saves in the Saskatoon net.
Leppard, a 19-year-old in his fourth season in the WHL, had a favourable impression of his new team.
"First thoughts, I was pretty excited," Leppard said, who added an assist in his Ice debut. "It’s a new organization and they’ve got the great facilities here and I was told we’re a pretty skilled team, which we definitely showed it tonight. I’m really excited to be here, get a change and meet some new faces."
NOTEWORTHY: Fifteen-year-old Ice rookie Matt Savoie recorded his first career point on Sunday, drawing a primary assist on Brad Ginnell’s opening goal... Sunday’s announced attendance was 1,395... Three stars were: 1. Winnipeg’s Brad Ginnell (two goals, one assist, seven shots); 2. Winnipeg’s Jackson Leppard (one goal, one assist); 3. Winnipeg’s Carson Lambos (plus-three)... Saskatoon went 1-for-3 on the power play. Winnipeg went 2-for-5.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.