Monday, 25 February 2019

Blades playoff return marks sweet night at SaskTel Centre

Max Gerlach (#9) hugs goalie Dorrin Luding after Saturday’s win.
    Two recent near misses made Saturday night that much more sweet for the Saskatoon Blades and their fans.
    On Saturday, the Blades ensured they will make their long awaited return to the WHL playoffs locking up a post-season berth with a 4-3 regular season victory after a tiebreaking shootout over the visiting Kootenay Ice at the SaskTel Centre. Saskatoon will be part of the WHL post-season for the first time since 2013.
    Going into that contest with the Ice, the Blades and their fans knew they would clinch a playoff berth with a win and either a regulation loss that night by either the Brandon Wheat Kings or the Red Deer Rebels.
Dorrin Luding (#31) stops the final shooter in the shootout.
    The Wheat Kings were in Prince Albert taking on the Raiders, while the Rebels were hosting the Edmonton Oil Kings in Red Deer.
    Due to the fact we live in an age when people can get instant information on their mobile phones, it is safe to say most of the 4,334 in attendance at the SaskTel Centre knew the Wheat Kings were getting drubbed by the Raiders 7-1.
    The Blades were up on the Ice 3-1 going into the third period only to have the Ice rally to tie things up at 3-3 and force overtime. As fate would have it, the standings point the Blades gained going to extra time would give them a playoff spot. The fact Rebels fell to the Oil Kings 5-2 cemented that scenario.
Chase Wouters was floating on air after Saturday’s win.
    Still, it made the celebrations of returning to the post-season feel that much better for those in the building, when the Blades pulled out the win taking a tiebreaking shootout 1-0 on a goal from rookie left-winger Kyle Crnkovic.
    Had the Blades lost in extra time to go to the post-season, it would have made the night feel incomplete. People would have likely dwelled on the fact the Blades still ultimately lost.
    After getting the win, it seemed like everyone was in a type of joyful mood that hadn’t been seen for some time in a Blades game at the SaskTel Centre. The moment had a special feeling in the air.
    For the current Blades players, coaches, trainers, hockey staff and front office staff, there was a sense of accomplishment. Getting to the playoffs is one of those tangible pieces of proof that validates all the hard work it took to get to that point.
Kirby Dach turns up ice for the Blades on Saturday night.
    The Priestner family had to be feeling all sorts of emotions, when the Blades locked down their playoff berth.
    Edmonton product Mike Priestner bought the Blades from Jack Brodsky before the start of the 2013-14 campaign. The new regime faced a major rebuilding project due to the fact the Blades’ future was mortgaged to stock the team with a roster worthy of hosting the Memorial Cup in 2013 and a major trade that brought star hometown product Brayden Schenn to the club in the 2010-11 campaign.
    Mike’s son, Colin, began working with the team almost immediately and took over the role of general manager before the start of the 2016-17 campaign.
Blades fans participate in a game during a stoppage.
    It was almost a given the first couple of seasons would be lame duck campaigns as the rebuild got underway under Mike Priestner’s ownership. In the 2013-14 season, the Blades finished with a 16-51-2-3 record for 37 points in the standings. The road back to respectability was going to be a long one.
    The first legitimate chance the Blades had to return to the playoffs came in the 2016-17 season.
The Blades celebrate a goal from Reece Harsch (#52).
    They posted a 28-35-7-2 record to sit five points behind the Calgary Hitmen (30-32-8-2) for the second and final wildcard berth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference in that campaign after a slump inside of the team’s final 11 games.
    The 2017-18 campaign proved to be more heartbreaking. The Blades posted a 35-33-3-1 regular season record to fall three points shy of the Prince Albert Raiders (32-27-9-4) for the second and final wildcard berth in the Eastern Conference. Again struggles in the final 11 games of the regular season caused a playoff berth to be missed.
Zach Huber, middle, breaks in on a scoring chance.
    The memories of those disappointments made Saturday’s win over the Ice that much more sweet.
Blades mascot Poke Check was posing for pictures with happy fans.
    Blades captain Chase Wouters, who is in his third full season with the Blades, seemed to be walking on air after the game. His wide smile was infectious.
    The moment was a great one for Blades 19-year-old netminder Dorrin Luding. Last June, the Blades acquired Luding in a trade with the Seattle Thunderbirds.
Clayton Kroeker rocks an Uncle Gary T-shirt.
    He knew he was coming in to backup sophomore star Nolan Maier, but Luding was pumped to be on a team that had potential to do great things. He became popular in the dressing, and as a huge bonus, he started against the Ice making 34 saves over 65 minutes and turning away all three shooters he faced in the shootout to get the win.
    Right now, Luding wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but Saskatoon.
    Crnkovic, who turned 17-years-old earlier this month, seemed to still be wide-eyed taking in the realization of what went down on Saturday during post-game interviews.
    Even first year head coach Mitch Love allowed himself exit his coached focused persona to loosen up and say he was excited about the fact the Blades will be back in the playoffs.
Ryan Hughes sets up for a scoring chance for the Blades.
    What might be even cooler is the fact the Blades aren’t just scraping into the playoffs. At 38-14-8, they currently sit fourth overall in the WHL standings. They are one of the WHL’s elite clubs.
Since bringing back their traditional Pac-Man jerseys as their full-time look before the start of the 2017-18 campaign, the Blades are 73-47-11-1.
    For the longest time during the lean years in the rebuild, Blades president Steve Hogle received a tonne of credit for helping create some great promotions around home games. The hockey side of the team’s operations longed to have the good on ice product to go with those promotions.
    Now, the Blades have a total package. They also have a very likable and great group of players to follow too, and six of them have cool novelty T-shirts for fans to buy too.
    Another thing that will make things fun is going to the playoffs and taking in the experiences will feel new once again. The Blades will write their own story on a clean slate. Most with the club don’t have any links to past post-season forays.
The Blades celebrate locking up a playoff berth on Saturday.
    The first new experience will be tuning up for the playoffs over the team’s last eight regular season games. That beings on Tuesday, when the Blades host the Lethbridge Hurricanes at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre.
    No matter what happens going forward, those linked with the current Blades will always remember how good Saturday’s post-season clinching win over the Ice felt at the SaskTel Centre.

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