Saturday, 23 February 2019

Blades post-season bound for first time since 2013

Saskatoon edges Ice 4-3 in shootout to clinch WHL playoff spot

The Blades celebrate locking up a WHL playoff berth.
    The drought is over.
    The Saskatoon Blades are finally back in the WHL playoffs.
    They made sure their post-season clinching game had lots of drama too.
    On Saturday night, the Blades downed the Kootenay Ice 4-3 after a tiebreaking shootout before 4,334 spectators at the SaskTel Centre to officially lock up a playoff berth for the first time since 2013. Saskatoon took the tiebreaking session 1-0 to win the regular season clash.
    The Blades clinched a playoff berth with their win combined with the fact the Prince Albert Raiders downed the visiting Brandon Wheat Kings 7-1 at the Art Hauser Centre on Saturday night.
    For Blades captain Chase Wouters, the clinching victory was a long time coming. 
Blades captain Chase Wouters is pumped to go to the WHL playoffs.
    The veteran centre, who turned 19-years-old earlier this month, was selected by the Blades in the first round and 18th overall in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft.
    He is skating through his third full season with Saskatoon club and saw his squad just miss the post-season in each of the past two years thanks to some late season slumps.
    Following the Blades win on Saturday, Wouters had a bit of tingly feeling knowing a playoff berth has been secured.
    “It is kind of something I looked forward to ever since I got drafted to Saskatoon when I was 14,” said Wouters, whose team sits third overall in the WHL with a 38-14-8 mark. “I guess it is just a pretty surreal like feeling knowing that we are going to be able to play in them this year.
    “It is something we’ve been talking about all year. It has been a goal since the start. It is pretty important to our group here to be able to play in the playoffs.”
Kyle Crnkovic had the shootout winner for the Blades.
    Saskatoon built a 3-1 lead after two periods only to see the Ice rally to force overtime with two third period goals.
    After a scoreless overtime frame, Blades rookie left-winger Kyle Crnkovic, who turned 17-years-old earlier this month, was the only player to score in the shootout. He deked and slid a backhand shot between the legs of Ice netminder Jesse Makaj.
    Crnkovic was excited about the fact the Blades, who are rated 10th in the CHL’s Top 10 rankings, clinched a playoff berth.
    “It is an awesome group of guys,” said Crnkovic. “I think we’ve worked for it, and we’ve earned it.
    “It is going to be an awesome time. To bring the team to the playoffs and all the fans, they deserve it. It should be a fun time.”
    The Blades broke the Ice at the 6:57 mark of the opening frame when import right-winger Kristian Roykas-Marthinsen banged home a gritty goal from the front of the Ice net.
    Saskatoon extended its edge to 2-0 with 5:40 remaining in the opening frame on a sweet play off an offensive zone faceoff. On the play, Wouters won the draw back to defenceman Brandon Schuldhaus.
Gary Haden (#14) celebrates scoring a goal with Chase Wouters.
    Schuldhaus quickly fed “Uncle” Gary Haden with a backdoor pass, and he buried his 28th goal of the season.
    The Ice didn’t go away. With 1:39 remaining in the first period, Kootenay right-winger Jaeger White wired a midrange shot to the top left corner of the Saskatoon goal to cut the Blades lead to 2-1.
    The Blades extended their lead to 3-1 at the 5:05 mark of the second, when veteran defenceman Reece Harsch wired home his fourth goal of the season.
    It seemed the Blades were going to cruise to victory holding a 3-1 edge after 40 minutes and a 31-17 advantage in shots on goal.
Dorrin Luding makes a glove save for the Blades.
    While Saskatoon was controlling play, Blades first year head coach Mitch Love didn’t think his players were at their best in those frames and being a bit off became more obvious in the third and overtime.
    “I didn’t think we played a great hockey game tonight,” said Love. “Guys are aware of that.
    “We have some things we have to tighten up. At the end of the day for the city and for the organization, it is a big day to get back in the playoffs and see what happens.”
    Before joining the Blades this season, Love spent the previous seven seasons on the staff of the Everett Silvertips. The Quesnel, B.C., product started with the Silvertips as an assistant coach and strength and conditioning coach. 
Jaeger White sniped home a goal for the Ice.
    He finished his time in Everett as an assistant coach and an assistant to the general manager.
    The Silvertips have never missed the playoffs since their inaugural campaign in 2003-04.
    During his post-game media scrum on Saturday, Love said he was focused on correcting what the Blades did wrong and looking to find ways to help the Saskatoon players continue to improve.
    When asked if he was just conditioned to always expecting to be in the post-season from his time in Everett, Love smiled and stepped out of the focused coach zone for a bit.
    “There are a few guys in the room who obviously haven’t played a playoff game in their career,” said Love. “It is awesome for them.
    “They are going to get that experience. We have a lot of guys that we have brought in here throughout the year that have had playoff experience.
    “This is my eighth consecutive season of playoff hockey, so I may look like I’m not that excited tonight, but I am. I’m a hockey coach, and I am always looking to be better the next day. I’m excited for our guys.”
Bradley Ginnell had a goal for the Ice.
    The Ice came with a huge push back in the third. Ice left-winger Bradley Ginnell scored with a spin around shot with 9:55 remaining in the third, and Kootenay rookie centre Jakin Smallwood potted the equalizer with 6:44 remaining in the third to force a 3-3 tie and overtime.
    The Blades almost didn’t make it to the shootout had it not been for the play of netminder Dorrin Luding. He made a glove save on a dangerous shot from White and later stopped the overager on a breakaway.
    In the final seconds of overtime, Luding had to stone Ice defenceman Marco Creta on a dangerous chance to allow the contest to progress to a shootout.
    That set the stage for Crnkovic to come through with his heroics in the shootout.
    Luding made 34 saves over 65 minutes and stopped all three shooters he faced in the shootout to pick up the win in goal for the Blades. Makaj turned away 38 shots over 65 minutes and turned away two of three shooters in the shootout to take the extra time setback in the Ice net. Kootenay saw its record move to 11-38-7-3.
Kyle Crnkovic (#16) celebrates scoring his shootout winner.
    Luding, who split last season between the Silvertips and Seattle Thunderbirds, said it was big for the Blades to return to the post-season.
    “It is a great accomplishment for us,” said Luding, who was traded by the Thunderbirds to the Blades last June. “I think we’ve made such large strides, and we can only make larger ones.
    “I think the sky is the limit for us.”
    The Ice return to action on Sunday, when they travel to Moose Jaw to face the Warriors at 4 p.m. at Mosaic Place.
Blades mascot Poke Check enjoys a celebration moment with the fans.
    The Blades resume play on Tuesday, when they host the Lethbridge Hurricanes at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre.
    Going forward, Love said the Blades have to keep finding ways to get better and keep progressing.
    “We have to again just go back to work,” said Love. “It is nice we have an “x” across our name in the standings, but we have a tough opponent coming in here on Tuesday, and we have to be ready for that.”

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