Friday, 9 March 2018

Blades fading from WHL playoff race with a whimper

Hitmen depart SaskTel Centre with 5-4 overtime win

Carson Focht (#19) celebrates his third period equalizer for the Hitmen.
    It was a great night for booing, if you were a fan of the Saskatoon Blades.
    On Friday night, it seemed like almost the worst case scenario played out to extremely hamper the Blades hopes of returning to the WHL playoffs for the first time since 2013. Playing before 3,579 spectators at the SaskTel Centre, the Blades dropped a 5-4 decision in overtime to the Calgary Hitmen, who sit second last in the entire WHL.
    Sophomore right-winger Tristen Nielsen netted his first career WHL hat trick and an assist, and he capped his three-goal night scoring the overtime winner for Calgary.
Tristen Nielsen, left, slips home an overtime winner for the Hitmen.
    The hosts held leads of 3-1 and 4-3 before coming out on the wrong end of the scoreboard.
    To make matters worse, the Blades lost ground to the two clubs they were hoping to catch for a playoff spot. 
    Out in Prince Albert, the host Raiders won their eighth straight game downing the WHL leading Moose Jaw Warriors 6-4. 
    In Brandon, the host Wheat Kings dumped the Swift Current Broncos, who sit second overall in the WHL, by a 6-3 score.
    The Wheat Kings improved to 36-26-3-2 to hold the first wildcard spot in the WHL’s Eastern Conference with a nine-point edge on the Blades. 
The Hitmen pour off their bench to mob Tristen Nielsen
    The Raiders improved to 31-25-9-2 to sit in the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference with a five-point edge on the Blades. The Blades saw their record move to 32-31-3-1 with the extra time setback.
    All three of those squads have five games remaining on their respective regular season schedules. The Blades and Wheat Kings will go at it on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre.
    Saskatoon could win all of its final five regular season games and still miss the playoffs. The Blades have collected just three points in the standings in their last six games including Tuesday’s 6-5 win at the SaskTel Centre over the Edmonton Oil Kings, who sit last in the entire WHL, and the overtime setback to the Hitmen on Friday.
Tristen Nielsen had his first career WHL hat trick on Friday.
    Back on February 19, the Blades downed the Oil Kings in Edmonton 3-2 in overtime. With 61 regular season games in the books, the Blades had a 31-27-2-1 record and held the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference with an eight-point edge over the Raiders, who were 23-25-9-2 at the time. The Raiders had two games in hand on the Blades.
    Saskatoon was two points behind the Wheat Kings for the first wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference, as Brandon had a 31-23-3-2 record at that time. The Wheat Kings had two game in hand on the Blades.
    The Blades were sitting pretty going into their last 11 regular season games. Instead of going on one last surge to secure a post-season spot, the Blades have slumped at the worst possible time. Anything they have accomplished in the regular season seems to be going up in smoke with a whimper.
    When they beat the Oil Kings on Tuesday, the Blades had stretches were they were playing to not lose the game instead of playing to win the game.
Gage Ramsay scored the Blades first goal on Friday night.
    That storyline repeated itself on Friday night, but this time the Blades did lose, and it was a game they shouldn’t have lost.
    Just 1:48 into the contest, the Blades scored on a beauty two-on-one rush. Centre Logan Christensen sped down the right wing and fed a pass across the front of the Hitmen goal to linemate Gage Ramsay, who tapped home the puck into an open cage to give the hosts a 1-0 lead.
    Nielsen netted his first goal of the game just 50 seconds after Ramsay’s tally to even the score at 1-1.
    Shortly past the midway point of the opening frame, right-winger Josh Paterson netted his 30th goal of the season for the Blades and Russian import defenceman Mark Rubinchik netted his third of the season to put Saskatoon up 3-1.
    Before the first period ended, the Hitmen tied the contest up at 3-3 scoring two short-handed goals on the same Blades power play.
Mark Kastelic had a short-handed goal for the Hitmen.
    Centre Mark Kastelic got the first shorty for the Hitmen and Nielsen notched his second of the contest after a video review determined his laser shot to the top corner of the Saskatoon net did go into the goal.
    From that point, the Blades were playing on their heels and seemed to be hoping for a break to pull out the win. After being outshot 12-6 in a scoreless second period, the Blades seemed to get the break they were looking for, when overage left-winger Braylon Shmyr wrapped home his 36th goal of the season to give Saskatoon a 4-3 lead just 41 seconds into the third period.
    The edge would be short-lived.
    At the 8:35 mark of the third period, Hitmen centre Carson Focht got the puck alone in front of the Saskatoon net, and he deked Blades goalie Nolan Maier with a backhand to forehand move to pot the equalizer to tie things up at 4-4.
Braylon Shmyr scored his 36th goal of the season on Friday night.
    Nielsen completed the Calgary comeback scoring on a breakaway with a low shot at the 1:58 mark of overtime.
    Maier turned away 30 shots in goal for the Blades. Nick Schneider, who is in his overage season, turned away 20 shots to pick up the win in goal for the Hitmen, who improved to 21-36-8-2.
    At the moment, it feels like the entire Blades team has hit the wall. They appear to be playing scared and with fear about what they are going to lose as opposed playing free and easy without fear.
    It does take a certain will to make the playoffs and another step up in that same will to remain in them. That might be one lesson the Blades still need to learn with being a younger team.
The Blades playoff hopes have faded over their last six games.
    At the moment, the Blades have to decide how they want to be remembered over their last five regular season games. If they emulate their play from their last six outings, the final memory they will leave the faithful in “The Bridge City” from the 2017-18 campaign won’t be a good one.

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