By Matthew Gourlie
If Saturday night was merely an appetizer, the main course of a Moose Jaw-Swift Current playoff series could be one for ages.
The East Division rivals went to war in front of 4,765 fans at Mosaic Place with first place on the line.
The Warriors skated away 4-2 victors, but finished the game with only four defencemen in one of the most intense games in recent memory.
“It was a good team-building win. We all backed each other, no matter what happened. It was a bit of a blood bath,” said Warriors defenceman Josh Brook.
The win gives the Warriors (50-15-1-2) a three-point lead over the Broncos (47-16-4-2) in the race for first place in the East Division. The Warriors will play their game in hand Sunday afternoon against Brandon.
“This was huge game for us to put a little cushion between us and them,” said Warriors forward Branden Klatt. “Playing in front of this crowd and having all of Moose Jaw behind us is what really helped push us to this win tonight.”
The Warriors dominated the first half of the game. They out-shot the Broncos 16-5 in the first period and took a 2-0 lead thanks to a Klatt goal and Jayden Halbgewach’s 67th of the season.
Broncos goalie Stuart Skinner held his team in the game, but let a soft goal by Justin Almeida beat him to give the Warriors a 3-0 lead. That was the end of Skinner’s night as he stopped 18 of 21 shots. It took the Broncos 12:50 into the middle frame to get their first shot of the period. At that point they were being out-shot 23-5.
The news wasn’t all good for the Warriors who lost Brandon Schuldhaus to a suspected knee injury late in the first period and then lost Dmitri Zaitsev when Tanner Nagel took a run at him and cut him in the dying seconds of the first period. Neither player returned.
The Broncos’ lost Giorgio Estephan for half of the first period when a Matteo Gennaro shot hit him in the nose and left him bloodied. Estephan returned in the second.
“I’ve been in this rivalry for the last three years and it’s nothing new. Maybe it was a little more heated at the end, but at the end of the day we didn’t play the way we wanted to. We reacted in the third the way we wanted to, but it was just too late,” said Broncos defenceman Colby Sissons. “They have a chip on their shoulder from last year. We popped them and we’re coming to do the same thing.”
The Broncos came out with more jump in the third and got on the board 2:02 in thanks to a Kaden Elder redirection off of a nice set-up by Aleksi Heponiemi.
The Broncos got a great chance to add to their momentum when Moose Jaw’s Barrett Sheen picked up a charging major five minutes into the third period. Sheen drove Tyler Steenbergen’s head into the glass and left the Broncos star bloodied. Steenbergen also did not return.
A Brett Howden tripping penalty gave the Broncos’ a two-minute five-on-three in the middle of the five-minute power play, but the Warriors killed them both off to regain the momentum.
The Warriors were missing Brayden Burke for the third straight game and the Broncos were missing Glenn Gawdin for the second straight night. The league’s best power play missed Gawdin and Steenbergen on their five-minute power play.
“We were missing a few guys and we weren’t quite on the same page,” Sissons said. “We need to get more pucks to the net. That was a huge turning point for us.”
While Halbgewachs seemed to get a lot of attention from the Broncos, both team’s skilled players were taking shots behind the play and took their lumps all night. The teams combined for 107 penalty minutes and there were nearly two line brawls as things threatened to get out hand at handful of times in the late going.
“Teams know we’re a very skilled team and they’re going to whatever they can to get us off of our game,” “We have to keep our composure and battle through all of that adversity, whatever any team throws at us.”
With exception of an early Broncos power play that lasted seven seconds, the Warriors earned the first five power plays of the night.
“The last few games we’ve taken six or seven penalties and against one of the best power plays in the league they’re going to capitalize,” Sissons said.
The Warriors were 1-for-8 on the power play and the Broncos were 1-for-5.
“I think they were (trying to get under out skin). Ultimately it hurt them because they took a lot of penalties doing that and it helped us” Brook said. “You have to pick your spots and I think we picked them well.”
Klatt’s second of the game iced the win for the Warriors. The Moose Jaw product now has five goals on the season, but has scored three times in the last two games.
“It’s very nice to burst the bubble. It’s nice to get two goals in a big game and help the team win a game,” Klatt said.
The Broncos scored a power play goal with 2:07 left, though they didn’t actually have an extra man on the ice. The Broncos pulled their goalie Joel Hofer, but didn’t allow them to put a sixth skater on the ice.
Hofer stopped 16 of the 17 shots he faced.
Moose Jaw’s Brody Willms made a trio of sensational post-to-post saves to help give the Warriors a comfortable lead and was strong all night. He finished with 21 saves.