Nick Pettigrew/Moose Jaw Warriors.

Warriors’ Hunt the hero in classic Trans-Canada Clash

REGINA – If Tuesday was any indication, the ‘Trans-Canada Clash’ is back in serious business.

The first contest of the year between the Moose Jaw Warriors (3-0-0) and Regina Pats (0-2-1), the south Saskatchewan-based clubs located only a 45-minutes apart along the Trans-Canada highway, was an instant classic, replete with wild swings of momentum, and multi-point contributions from respective phenoms Brayden Yager and Connor Bedard.

And for the third-straight game to start the Regina Hub, Moose Jaw found a way to win beyond 60 minutes, rallying from down three goals on two occasions to take a 5-4 victory at the Brandt Centre.

“I am really proud of the group,” said Warriors’ head coach Mark O’Leary post-game.

“I think we’re learning something about this group, and that’s the resiliency they have – they are never out of the game. I also think we need to get a little bit better with our starts. Tonight (we waited till the second) period to turn it around, and you would like to put 60-minutes together, but there is a whole lot to get excited about for this win for sure. As coaches we have to be a little patient in terms of where we are at here, we are really early in the season without much of a training camp. It isn’t an excuse at all, because all the teams are in that situation, but sitting back looking big picture we have to understand that it’s a learning curve to find that consistency of what our game looks like, but it’s exciting that we’ve shown spurts of what we want this team to look like.”

This time it was Daemon Hunt’s turn to play hero, as the captain out-waited the Pat covering him off an offensive zone face-off won by Yager, jumped around Roddy Ross in the Regina net, and buried neatly for his second goal in as many games, and the first game-winner of his WHL career.

“All I did was drop the puck, and he did the rest,” Yager said.

“It was a great finish, such a great move. He’s our leader for a reason: he’s clutch, he plays his game, and he’s unbelievable.”

It was the winless Pats who came out swinging.

Regina got the scoring going only 2:48 into the contest when a long wrister from the point off the stick of Tom Cadieux had eyes through a forest of bodies and beat Boston Bilous through the five-hole.

It was the third time in as many contests that the Warriors had given up the first tally of the game.

Regina kept up the pressure and was almost rewarded again only moments later when a Pat batted a rebound out of mid-air into the Moose Jaw net, but it was disallowed because of a high-stick. Then two minutes later, captain Logan Nijhoff pinged a one-timer off the post to the left of the Bilous; a good bounce for the reigning WHL Goaltender of the Week.

But the Warriors in black just could not stop the early Regina wave.

Ex-Moose Jaw forward Carson Denomie made them pay again at the 7:03-mark of the opening frame when his bullet shot from the top of the right circle caught Bilous moving to his left to double the lead. Then, at the end of a long 5-on-3 with ex-Regina man Riley Krane in the box, the Pats made it three from another Denomie rocket.

Regina rookie phenom Bedard assisted on both.

It was then that Brayden Yager finally had a reply for Moose Jaw. The rookie, who was the shootout hero Sunday night vs. Prince Albert, scored his first actual WHL goal when he deflected in a Denton Mateychuk point shot at 10:51 of the opening period.

Almost certainly, it’s his first of many in the black and red.

 

That the two youngsters, Yager and Bedard, were so involved, was not lost on anyone.

“The positions that these two guys put themselves in,” O’Leary said,  “where they are thinking one or two steps ahead that give them all these opportunities to showcase their skill. I think that’s what makes them so special: there are lots of guys that have the skill level, but it is that hockey sense, the knack for being in the right spot, and the competitiveness to make it all come through. These guys have all that and it’s going to be fun to watch (them go at it for the next number of years.”

Yet it felt like the Pats just could not be stopped in the first as they ruined the moment for Moose Jaw fans, chasing Bilous when Regina’s Cole Dubinsky found just enough time and space right in front and made no mistake with a snipe to the top corner off a nifty feed from Carter Massier just under a minute later.

Thirteen minutes and third seconds left in the first period, rookie Brett Mirwald replaced Bilous for his season debut, Regina had a 4-1 lead, and Moose Jaw looked just a little bit stunned.

But the intermission came at a perfect time, the Pats were running into serious discipline problems, with five penalties in a row, and the best news for the Warriors: there were still 40 minutes to go.

Veteran Warrior Tate Popple playing in his 177th career game for Moose Jaw nabbed his third of the Hub on the power play, whipping home a well-timed cross-seam pass off the stick of Ryder Korczak 23-seconds into the second period to cut the lead in half.

Next, the draft-eligible 2003-born forward Eric Alarie continued his impressive start at the Hub when he beautifully received a long lead pass from Cole Jordan and snapped his second of the year past Roddy Ross at 7:54 of the middle frame to make it 4-3.

But the momentum was firmly in Moose Jaw’s hands, and it didn’t take long into the third for the Warriors to get their fourth.

Korczak, who already had two assists in the contest and led the men in black in scoring a season ago, banged home the game-tying-marker from close range 1:03 into the period after he received a favourable bounce on an Alarie wrister.

The cherry on top: Yager earned his first career assist on the tally.

Regina pushed hard in the third, outshot the Warriors 43-32 over the entirety of the contest, and gave Mirwald plenty of chances to shine in his WHL debut. His best stop came when a late-second period turnover sprung Carter Massier on a long breakaway, but the third-year Pats forward could not beat the rookie’s lightning left pad.

When the dust settled, Mirwald stopped all 27 shots he faced on the night.

“(His play) was really exciting,” added O’Leary.

“We probably wanted to get Brett in a little earlier, but Bilous earned his way and we wanted to give him the opportunity to keep rolling. Maybe it is a good thing that Brett didn’t have all day to think about the game, he just had to jump in and do his thing – and he certainly did that. I am really happy for him, he’s a great kid, a competitive kid who has been around our organization for a few years and I am really happy to see him get the first win.”

Ross stopped 27 shots in the defeat.

While many will make this bitter rivalry about Yager vs. Bedard going forward, it appears as though the Warrior Yager is not.

“I am just going to play my game,” he said when asked about facing off against Regina’s No. 1 overall pick from the 2020 WHL draft.

“Obviously (Connor) is a great player, and I want to be as good as I can too, but there are 25 other guys (on our team) working their tails off too. I just think this rivalry is something to watch, the Warriors and Pats.

“It’s nice to get the win,” he added, “so hopefully we’ll just keep building off that.”

Moose Jaw is next action Thursday afternoon when it takes on the Winnipeg Ice, puck drops at the Brandt Centre at 4:00 p.m.

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