Saturday, 17 December 2016

Blades need more than morale victories

Saskatoon enters break with tough loss to Wheat Kings

Blades goalie Logan Flodell guides a shot away from the Saskatoon goal.
    For every heart-stopping victory the Saskatoon Blades earn, it seems like there are two heartbreaking defeats awaiting just around the corner.
    On Saturday, “the Bridge City Bunch” entered the WHL Christmas break dropping a 3-2 decision at the SaskTel Centre to the visiting Brandon Wheat Kings. Locked in a 2-2 tie, Wheat Kings winger Connor Gutenberg banged home the winning goal during a net scramble after an offensive zone faceoff with 66 seconds to play in the third period to mostly disappoint a crowd of 4,319.
    The hosts couldn’t counter with the equalizer and fell to 13-19-3-1 to sit four points back of the Wheat Kings, who improved to 15-14-4, for the final wildcard playoff berth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference. The Wheat Kings, who are the defending WHL champions, also have three games in hand on Saskatoon.
Wheat Kings winger Connor Gutenberg chases a loose puck.
    After three years of rebuilding under the ownership of Mike Priestner, who bought the franchise after it hosted the Memorial Cup in 2013, this is supposed to be the year the Blades obtain more tangible results – like earning a playoff berth.
    The Blades may still earn that elusive playoff berth. When play resumes after the WHL Christmas break, Saskatoon plays 22 of its remaining 36 games at home. There is the potential to make big gains.
    Since being bombed at home 8-2 by the Medicine Hat Tigers back on Nov. 26, the work ethic has been there for the Blades on most nights they have hit the ice. The highlight of that stretch was a thrilling 2-1 overtime win on Dec. 10 in Regina against the Pats, who are still rated first in the Canadian Hockey League’s top 10 rankings.
    Even on Saturday, the effort was there from the Blades and for the Wheat Kings as well.
Blades winger Braylon Shmyr zips into the offensive zone.
    Both sides have to be given credit for coming out hard, because there are a lot of occasions where the final regular season game before the WHL Christmas break turns into a dud. That sometimes is hard to avoid as players on both sides are looking forward to going home.
    Brandon used one tactic that seemed to catch the Blades off guard, which was to shoot or try and guide the puck on goal off an offensive zone faceoff.
    The Wheat Kings netted their first goal while playing short-handed doing exactly that at the 3:42 mark of the first. Off a draw, Wheat Kings centre Tanner Kaspick drove the puck on goal creating a net scramble, and linemate Meyer Nell potted the rebound to give the visitors a 1-0 edge.
    The Blades responded at the 2:13 mark of the second, when winger Braylon Shmyr slipped home a power-play goal on a backhander through a screen to force a 1-1 tie. That tally also ignited the contest’s Teddy Bear Toss promotion, where the spectators threw enough stuffed animals on the ice that they overfilled two half ton trucks and partially filled a third.
    At the 8:55 mark of the second, Brandon went ahead 2-1 off another offensive zone faceoff. Centre Reid Duke drove to the net off the draw and fed linemate Tyler Coulter with a sweet pass across the face of the Saskatoon net. Coulter potted his 11th of the season into an empty cage.
    The Blades showed their resiliency forcing a 2-2 tie at the 3:40 mark of the third on a highlight reel type tally. Breaking into the offensive zone, Shmyr slipped a smart pass past a Wheat Kings defenceman to spring Blades overage centre Jesse Shynkaruk in on a breakaway.
Evan Fiala and Tyler Lees (#16) load up a truck with stuffed animals.
    Shynkaruk went from his forehand to his backhand and slipped home his 11th of the season past Wheat Kings goalie Jordan Papirny.
    That set the stage for the dramatics in the final 66 seconds.
    Papirny made 22 saves to earn the win in goal for Brandon.
    Logan Flodell, who has been outstanding all season in net for the Blades, turned away 26 shots in the Saskatoon goal.
    With Saturday’s setback, the Blades fall to 6-8 in one-goal games.
    They have earned four points in the standing in four of those losses due to the fact they came in overtime or after a tiebreaking shootout.  
    Saskatoon could really use the points that were lost in the one-goal setbacks that came in either regulation or extra time. Those lost points are making the difference between sitting in a playoff position or on the outside looking in.
    The Blades have been hampered by the fact the injury bug seems to bite their key players. Star centre Cameron Hebig hasn’t played a game due to an upper body injury. Right-winger Mason McCarty has missed the Blades last 10 games due to a severe lower body injury.
The Wheat Kings celebrate victory at the expense of the Blades.
    Shynkaruk and defenceman Jake Kustra, who are both healthy now, both lost significant time due to injury.
    Saskatoon is currently without defenceman Libor Hajek, who is taking part in the selection camp for the Czech Republic’s world junior team.
    The fact the Blades have been competitive and are still in the playoff hunt with their injuries and close setbacks helps the club stack up a big list of morale victories.
    However, the morale victories need to turn into actual victories on the scoreboard, or the Blades will be out of the playoffs for a fourth straight year.
    They are still in position to make a push for the playoffs, but the road to the post-season won’t be an easy one.

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