Tate Popple scored his second goal of the contest 1:07 into three-on-three overtime, and the Moose Jaw Warriors (1-0-0) outlasted the Brandon Wheat Kings (0-0-1) 4-3 to open the Regina Hub and the 2021 Western Hockey League Eastern Division campaign.
— The WHL (@TheWHL) March 13, 2021
The 20-year-old Popple, who has played all 175 games of his regular-season WHL career with the Warriors, stormed into the left side of the Wheat Kings’ zone on a two-on-one with rookie Denton Mateychuk, and went five-hole on Brandon netminder Ethan Kruger to send the Moose Jaw bench into hysteria.
“It feels great after over a year off and not being really sure what was going to happen with everything going on (in the world),” Topple said.
“It was a great play by Denton to get back, and then get back up in the rush with me, and then I just saw a little opening there (in Kruger’s pads). It’s a great win by the boys, everybody played (great).”
That it went to overtime at all has to be an early lesson to Head Coach Mark O’Leary’s young club: his charges had performed a masterclass of up-tempo hockey, stifled Brandon’s potent attack for 50 minutes, and carried a well-earned 3-1 lead into the stretch run.
O’Leary chose to see the glass half-full post-game, especially given the 363-day wait between games.
“I think (this win) just shows the growth and resiliency of the group,” he said.
“I think in those situations last year we might have lost in regulation, but I think we’re a resilient bunch, we picked ourselves up, and just got back to work. There are just little moments in the game where the tide can turn, but I thought generally speaking the momentum never got away from us too much for long stretches. Overall, for the first game of a season after a long layoff, you have to be happy with that.”
The lead was cut to one at 10:14 of the third frame when a Braden Schneider point shot caromed high off the end boards over a leaping Bilous and landed in the crease for Jake Chiasson to poke home.
Then Schneider, the New York Rangers first-rounder, potted his own to complete the comeback just over two minutes later with a seeing-eye wrister that the Moose Jaw goaltender did not see.
It did not take long at all for the Warriors and Wheat Kings to get those old hockey feelings back, even in front of a crowd of scattered scouts, media, and gameday staff.
Moose Jaw defenceman Nolan Jones felt Wheaties’ winger Brett Hyland had caught him with a head-hunting open-ice check in front of the MJ bench with just over a minute remaining in the opening frame. A helmet-less Jones, long hair flowing in the wind, went for the retaliatory cross-check, and a crowded ruckus ensued, resulting in a four-minute Brandon power play.
Mid-way through the second, Brandon’s Ridley Grieg, the Ottawa Senators’ first-rounder, was tossed when he welcomed Brad Ginnell back to the Eastern Conference with a hard cross-check from behind that sent the former Spokane Chief head-first into the end boards.
“I thought the (energy and physicality of the game) was great,” O’Leary said.
“I know there were no fans, but to be honest with you I completely forgot about it for long stretches and I think that is a testament to the energy from the players. As much as you can skate in the off-season or practice, there just isn’t that edge, so you crank up the intensity like it was today, and I think it just makes for real good hockey. As a fan watching that game, I just think it was an entertaining game to watch, and I know it was an entertaining game to be a part of. It is too bad there are no fans, but I think everybody will be happy if the games are anything like that.”
Yep folks, hockey was back on tahe prairies alright!
A neat Ben McCartney tip in front on a Chad Nychuk point blast at the 7:18-mark of the opening frame counted as the first goal of the Regina Hub, and opened the scoring at 1-0 for the ‘home’ Wheat Kings, resplendent in their black and golds.
Moose Jaw responded 5:06 into the second period by way of a hard power-move to the blue paint. Cade Hayes picked the puck off the left half-wall in the Brandon zone, charged toward the Wheat Kings’ net, and deftly flipped the puck over goaltender Ethan Kruger while dodging a crowd of black-shirted defenders.
Calder Anderson and Max Wanner earned the assists on Hayes’ eighth career Western Hockey League goal.
Popple cashed in his first on the two-man advantage that resulted from Grieg’s indiscretion when he finished off a scramble in front of Kruger at 8:25 of the middle frame. Ginnell patched his dented face up in time to assist on the goal of his fellow 20-year-old, along with Eric Alarie.
Alarie notched one of his own moments later to make it 3-1, jamming home the spoils from a blocked shot into the empty age at the 12:18-mark, with Brandon still serving Grieg’s five-minute major. Ginnell assisted again, as did Ryder Korczak.
So, the hockey gods rewarded Ginnell’s painful end-boards encounter with two assists, and a win over little brother Riley on the other team’s bench: not a bad return on investment.
“You never want to see a teammate go down like that,” said Topple.
“But I think that definitely lit a little bit of fire underneath us, and really helped us come back and push in the second there.”
“Brad is a really calming presence for us,” added Coach O’Leary.
“He is a really smart hockey player, guys want to play with him, and he plays with his head up, is willing to try things and make plays. That is what you want out of a 20-year-old, and tonight is a perfect example: when things get a little hairy, and they tie the game up late, you have to rely on your older guys to weather the storm, calm things down, and just get back to business. Brad is a guy who can do that, and create offence, and really pleased with his start.”
Highly touted rookie Brayden Yager made his Warriors’ debut but was held pointless despite impressing Coach O’Leary in a limited role.
Bilous made 19 saves for the win, while Kruger responded with 27 stops in defeat.
The Warriors are next in action Sunday evening when they take on the Prince Albert Raiders, puck drops at 8:00 p.m. Saskatchewan Time.