The Blades are back in the playoffs with a lot to prove

Sports | by Gregory Beatty

After a five-year drought, the Saskatoon Blades finally made the WHL playoffs.

That’s welcome news for Saskatoon hockey fans — but not unexpected, as heading into the season the Blades were tagged by WHL pundits as a team on the rise.

What wasn’t expected, though, was just how strong a season Saskatoon would have. While the Prince Albert Raiders own the WHL’s best record by a wide margin, the Blades are vying with the Everett Silvertips and Vancouver Giants for the league’s second-best record.

Even long-time Blades broadcaster Les Lazaruk is impressed.

“My thoughts heading into the season were, ‘Okay, they should be in the playoffs. But let’s not go too quickly because if they don’t make it, goodness gracious, what’s going to happen then?’ But so far, they’ve exceeded expectations,” he says.

Credit Due

If the Blades did have a question mark when the season started, it was how rookie head coach Mitch Love and his staff would mesh with the players after the Blades fired Dean Brockman.

From the outset, says Lazaruk, Love was successful in reaching the players.

“The one thing he wants is for his teams to play the ‘right way’, as he calls it. The players have realized that to be successful, the right way is his way.”

One player who’s thrived under Love is defenceman Dawson Davidson, who currently leads the team in scoring.

“He’s had a breakout season — something that as a 20-year-old he was capable of doing, but hadn’t done yet,” says Lazaruk.

“[Davidson] was with the team last year, so coming back after missing out on the playoffs you got the sense he took it personally and made sure he overachieved so they’d make the post-season this year,” says Lazaruk.

Besides Davidson, the Blades have five other players with 60-plus points. That group is led by 17-year-old sophomore centre Kirby Dach and 20-year-old left-winger Max Gerlach, who have both had solid seasons.

Goalie Nolan Maier has performed well too, says Lazaruk.

“I went on a Twitter rant recently,” says Lazaruk. “I’m tired of goaltenders needing to be 6’2” to be recognized by professional scouts. I thought the whole idea of being a goaltender is you stop the puck. That’s what Maier (who is six feet) has done, and he’s improved on his goals against and save percentage numbers from last year.

“He’s just steady, and the team relies on him,” adds Lazaruk. “He’s played 51 games already, and has handled the workload very well as a 17-year-old sophomore.”

While Dawson, Dach, Gerlach and Maier were all returning veterans, the Blades have added some key players through trades both at the Jan. 10 deadline and even earlier, says Lazaruk. “When they beat Prince Albert 1-0 in early December I think the thought was they had a pretty good group, so they went out and acquired [some players].”

Centre Ryan Hughes was a big acquisition from Portland, as was forward Gary Haden from Medicine Hat.

The Blades also strengthened their blueline through the addition of Brandon Schuldhaus (from Moose Jaw), Nolan Kneen (Kamloops) and Reece Harsch (Seattle).

“Pretty much all the deals they’ve made have been golden,” says Lazaruk. “Up and down the roster, there’s depth. There are no real stars on the team, but a lot of good players.”

Playoff Ghosts

The Blades have secured home ice advantage in the first round, and will host Moose Jaw Warriors, a team they’ve had success against this season, winning five of their six meetings. But Lazaruk expects a battle.

“Moose Jaw has three of the WHL’s top scorers, and two of the top scoring defencemen, along with some decent goaltending from Brodan Salmond and Adam Evanoff.  So if they can get any kind of contribution from their second and third lines, and second and third defensive pairings, they’ll definitely be a handful.”

Left-winger Tristan Langan, centre Justin Almeida and left-winger Brayden Tracey are Moose Jaw’s big guns up-front, while Josh Brook and Jet Woo lead on defence.

Still, Lazaruk likes the Blades’ chances of advancing to the second round. “If they can continue to do what they’ve done to Moose Jaw, which is restrict what those top players have been able to do, then they have a pretty good chance.”

Barring a major upset by the wild card team that plays Prince Albert in the first round, that would set up a second round match-up between the Blades and Raiders. P.A.’s had Saskatoon’s number this season, winning five of six games to date. “But they haven’t played each other since early January, and the Blades have added Ryan Hughes and Reece Harsch since then,” says Lazaruk.

The Blades and Raiders close out the regular season with a home-and-home March 15–16, but with nothing at stake in the standings, both teams will likely rest many of their best players.

If the Blades and Raiders did meet in the second round, it would be a marquee match-up between two of the WHL’s top regular season teams. Saskatoon hockey fans should be salivating at the prospect, but over the last 25 years the Blades have been chronic underperformers in the playoffs and that’s made people wary, says Lazaruk.

“Fans have had way too many disappointments, so they’re kind of like Missouri, they want to be shown that the Blades are really a contending team. So they’ll want to see a first-round playoff victory before they commit to saying ‘Okay, maybe they are pretty good.’”

The Blades recent playoff history has been particularly abysmal, says Lazaruk. “Right now, they’re on a 12-game losing streak. They haven’t won a playoff game since 2011. They eliminated P.A. in the first round in 2011, then lost four straight to Kootenay. Then they lost four straight to Medicine Hat in each of the next two seasons. So that’s 12 straight losses.”

Then, of course, there’s the five-season playoff drought, which included a couple of late season collapses when a playoff spot was within reach.

“To me, a successful playoff for the Blades this year would be to win the first round against Moose Jaw and give P.A. all they can handle in the second round,” says Lazaruk. “Anything beyond that is gravy. And the hope is they can get fans to start believing in them by doing what they need to do come out of the first round.”