Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Rookie Crnkovic pushes Blades past Thunderbirds

Kyle Crnkovic had a big night for the Blades.
    It appears 16-year-old rookie left-winger Kyle Crnkovic is going to have an extended stay with the Saskatoon Blades top six forward unit.
    If the young Chestermere, Alta., product is dropped off the team’s top two lines, the Blades coaches will likely have a lot of doubts regarding if they are doing the right thing.
    Playing on a line with 17-year-old Tristen Robins at centre and 18-year-old Eric Florchuk at right wing, Crnkovic had a goal and two assists to push the Blades past the Seattle Thunderbirds 4-3 in a WHL regular season contest on Tuesday night before 3,037 spectators at the SaskTel Centre.
    The outburst was Crnkovic’s first multiple point night of his WHL career, and he now has three goals and six assists in his last nine games.
    “It felt really good,” said Crnkovic, who has four goals and nine assists in 27 games this season. 
    “Obviously, it is awesome to get the two points, and to contribute, it feels awesome.”
Kyle Crnkovic has three goals and six assists in his last nine games.
    Over the last stretch of games for the Blades, Crnkovic, who stands just under 5-foot-7 and weighs 153 pounds, has been very noticeable with the energy he brings on every shift. While he may be the smallest player on the ice in most of Saskatoon’s games, he doesn’t shy away from battles or going into the corners or in front of the net.
    During his last nine games with the Saskatoon squad, Crnkovic’s offensive talents are showing through, which saw the Blades select him in the first round and 10th overall in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft. He has seen extra playing time during the Blades last four games due to the fact star 17-year-old centre Kirby Dach has been out with a lower body injury.
The Blades celebrate a power-play goal from Josh Paterson (#61).
    Blades head coach Mitch Love has enjoyed seeing Crnkovic take off.
    “You could see the confidence growing,” said Love. “I think obviously that comes with added ice time.
    “As a hockey coach, you want to find that trust in those young kids. He is doing a good job away from the puck, which is earning him more ice time. Nobody has ever questioned his offensive capabilities here and his skill set, and I think that was very evident tonight.”
    So far this season, Crnkovic believes he has given a solid effort every night, but he has received some breaks offensively as of late.
    “I think I have been playing the same way,” said Crnkovic. “I think just some luck is coming my way.
    “I am just trying to keep playing hard the second half.”
Blades G Dorrin Luding (#31) stops Seattle LW Andrej Kukuca.
    After the Thunderbirds took a 1-0 lead early in the first, Crnkovic went to work. At the 15:24 mark of the opening frame, he slipped a backhand shot past Thunderbirds netminder Cole Schwebius on a breakaway to tie things up at 1-1.
    Just 2:06 after that tally with the Blades working on the power play, Crnkovic had the puck at the left side boards in the Seattle zone. He centred a smart pass to centre Josh Paterson, who knocked home his 14th goal of the season to give the Blades a 2-1 lead.
    Crnkovic was pleased he could make both plays
    “They were both good,” said Crnkovic. “They were both good to get.
    “It feels good to contribute and help the team win.”
Aiden De La Gorgendiere looks to make a pass for the Blades.
    The Thunderbirds scored late in the first and early in the second to go ahead 3-2.
    At the 13:49 mark of the second, the Blades tied things up at 3-3, when captain Chase Wouters tipped home a shot from linemate Max Gerlach.
    Before the second frame expired, Blades 16-year-old rookie defenceman Aidan De La Gorgendiere broke into the Seattle zone on a rush and slipped a pass to right-winger Eric Florchuk to spring him in alone on the Thunderbirds goal.
    Florchuk slipped a shot between the legs of Thunderbirds netminder Cole Schwebius to give the Blades a 4-3 lead with 2:40 remaining in the frame. Crnkovic picked up his second assist of the game on Florchuk’s tally.
    The rookie winger said he has enjoyed playing on a line with Florchuk and Robins and has enjoyed the fact he is starting to contribute offensively.
A young fan cheers on Blades LW Riley McKay.
    “At the start it was tough just getting used to the league,” said Crnkovic. “I think as it has gone on and getting comfortable with the players around me, it is getting a lot better.”
    Zach Ashton, captain Nolan Volcan and Matthew Wedman replied with singles for the Thunderbirds. Wedman had an assist and won a third period fight against Wouters to record the Gordie Howe hat trick for Seattle.
    Ashton’s tally was the first of his WHL career. The 17-year-old defenceman was acquire in a trade with the Blades last Wednesday, which saw veteran defenceman Reece Harsch, who is in his 19-year-old season, land in Saskatoon.
Eric Florchuk (#17) fires a shot on goal for the Blades.
    Harsch, who was playing his fourth game with the Blades, was happy to get the win against his former team.
    “It felt pretty good,” said Harsch. “I had a lot of memories with those guys and that team and that organization, so it definitely felt good to get the win tonight.”
    Dorrin Luding turned away 33 shots in goal for the Blades, who improved to 26-12-5 to sit third overall in the WHL. Schwebius stopped 28 shots in goal for the Thunderbirds, who fell to 12-21-4.
    Love was pleased his side controlled a scoreless third period, where the Blades held a 14-9 edge in shots on goal. 
Matthew Wedman had a Gordie Howe hat trick for the Thunderbirds.
    The Saskatoon bench boss thought his team spent too much time in its own zone in the second frame.
    “For our guys to regroup and outshoot them in the third period I thought we really did a good job of limiting their offensive opportunities,” said Love, whose club was playing their eighth game in 13 days. “There were a lot of shots from the outside.
    “I am real proud of the guys’ effort, especially in this stretch of hockey. This has been a grind for our guys. It was very noticeable tonight against a very heavy and competitive team in the Thunderbirds.
    “We stuck with it and found a way to win a hockey game.”
    The Thunderbirds return to action on Wednesday, when they travel to Prince Albert to take on the Raiders (7 p.m., Art Hauser Centre).
    The Blades return to action on Friday, when they host the Calgary Hitmen (7 p.m., SaskTel Centre).
Going forward into the rest of the season, Crnkovic said wants to keep playing as well as possible.
The Blades celebrate their victory over the Thunderbirds on Tuesday.
    “I am just going to try and play my game and work hard every day in practice and I think just try and contribute to the team any way I can,” he said.

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