By Les Lazaruk
Blocking shots, deflecting passes, clearing the front of the net; that all falls under the job description of Saskatoon Blades’ captain Evan Fiala.
Scoring late game-winning goals,not so much in the defenceman’s wheelhouse.
But, that was the biggest part of the 20-year-old’s role in Wednesday’s 5-4 victory over the visiting Moose Jaw Warriors.
“The winner is probably the biggest one for me,” said the product of nearby Clavet, Sask., about finally getting his first goal of the season, which came with 1:12 remaining in the third period. “I’ve been waiting for that (first) one, I’ve been just trying to throw it at the net and, luckily, this rabbit found the hole.”
The goal ended a 22-game goal-less drought for Fiala and was his second career game-winner. The first one was, ironically, against the Blades on Jan. 13, 2016 for the Chiefs in a 9-2 victory over the Bridge City Bunch at Spokane.
Fiala’s goal also put a stop to the 16-5-0 Moose Jaw’s six-game winning streak, a run that had propelled them to No. 2 in the latest, weekly CHL Top 10 rankings that were released just before first faceoff.
“I think it’s huge (to beat the second-ranked Warriors) and I think it’s huge for our confidence,” said Saskatoon left winger Gage Ramsay, who shook a rather large goal-less monkey off his back. A streak that dates back 16 games to when the second Blue and Gold game of the season. “We can beat teams like Swift Current and Moose Jaw. We’ve just got to be able to stay consistent and believe in ourselves. I think tonight’s game really helps us with that.”
The Bridge City Bunch also got goals from Alec Zawatsky (his first career WHL goal in his fifth game with the Blue and Gold), Caleb Fantillo and Braylon Shmyr, all while out-shooting the Warriors 51-38 in front of 2,745 fans at SaskTel Centre.
For a split-second, it looked like Moose Jaw tied the game with 54.6 seconds left in the third period. But, referee Reagan Vetter waved off the tally, saying Blades goaltender Ryan Kubic had frozen the puck between his legs, even though it was visible to everyone to the left and directly in front of the Saskatoon puck-stopper.
Noah Gregor (just 57 seconds into the contest), Justin Almeida (shorthanded), Tanner Jeannot and 15-year-old affiliate defenceman Daemon Hunt (with his first WHL goal) scored for the Warriors, who were out-shot 51-38.
The 8-10-1 Blades host the Brandon Wheat Kings Friday before visiting Moose Jaw Saturday and again on Tuesday.
Pacman Points – Prior to opening puck drop, the Blades saluted the Saskatoon Hilltops junior football team. The Toppers won their fourth consecutive Canadian Junior Football League title, a feat never accomplished before. Quarterback Jordan Walls brought the Canadian Bowl trophy onto the ice as part of a five-play contingent involved in the opening ceremonies.
In addition, the WHL honoured veteran referee Reagan Vetter with the WHL Milestone Award prior to the game. The 40-year-old Saskatoon product has worked over 650 games in 20 years, the first six as a linesman and the last 14 as a referee.
Moose Jaw scratched eight players from their lineup for the game, five of them because of upper body injuries, with four of those five being defencemen. With Josh Brook, Jett Woo, Dmitri Zaitsev and Matthew Benson sidelined, the Warriors dressed 15-year-old Daemon Hunt and 16-year-old Matthew Sanders as part of their blue line corps. Captain Brett Howden was sidelined with an upper body ailment and worked alongside veteran James Gallo on the Moose Jaw radio broadcast. Otherwise, defenceman Drae Gardiner plus forwards Tyler Smithies and Brecon Wood were healthy scratches.
The Blades welcomed back centre Kirby Dach from his time with Team Canada Black at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge as well as pesky right winger Caleb Fantillo after missing the previous seven games with an upper body injury. Also returning from the World Under-17s was 16-year-old Nolan Maier. He replaces 18-year-old Joel Grzybowski as the back-up goaltender behind Ryan Kubic with the Bridge City Bunch. Grzybowski has reported to the Battlefords of the S-J-H-L. Dach’s return meant Logan Doust returns to his midget triple-A team in B.C. As well, 17-year-old Randen Schmidt rejoined the Blades after playing Saturday in Brandon, now that 17-year-old blue-liner Seth Bafaro has had his suspension length set at four games for taking a checking from behind major and game misconduct Friday against visiting Swift Current. Centre Logan Christensen remains sidelined by an Upper Body Injury while forwards Tyler Lees and Dryden Michaud were healthy scratches.
The power play was a non-factor, with the exception of Almeida’s short-handed goal. The Blades went 0-for-4 on the man advantage while Moose Jaw was 0-for-3 on the power play.
Saskatoon captured possession off 36 of 64 faceoffs. Cam Hebig, who had two assists, won 16 of 26 draws while Tristan Langen led the way for the Warriors, winning eight of 12 trips to the dot.
The busiest individual shooter was Hebig for the Bridge City Bunch with 10 shots on goal. Ramsay had eight shots. Almeida topped all Moose Jaw skaters with nine shots on goal.