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Moose Jaw brings star power in first Memorial Cup appearance

Moose Jaw Warriors Moose Jaw Warriors - Western Hockey League (TheWHL)

The 104th Memorial Cup is set to begin in Saginaw, Mich. on Friday with the entirety of the tournament available on TSN.

The Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights, Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League champion Drummondville Voltigeurs, Western Hockey League champion Moose Jaw Warriors, and the host team Saginaw Spirit will compete for the right to be named the champion of the Canadian Hockey League.

With analysis from TSN Director of Scouting Craig Button, we will profile each team leading up to the tournament opener on Friday.

The Moose Jaw Warriors had the toughest path of the three major junior champions heading into the Memorial Cup tournament.

They finished the regular season with a 44-21-3 record, fifth best in the WHL, and powered past the Brandon Wheat Kings and Swift Current Broncos in the first two rounds of the playoffs in nine games total.

However, they went up against the regular season champion Saskatchewan Blades in the Eastern Conference Championship series and it took everything they had to get through. The Warriors found a way to outlast the Blades in seven games with six of the contests, including Game 7, decided in overtime.

Moose Jaw then went up against the Portland Winterhawks for the WHL Championship and despite some pushback from their opponents, were able to lift the Ed Chynoweth Cup for the first time in franchise history with a four-game sweep.

The city of Moose Jaw makes its first appearance at the Memorial Cup tournament since 1947 and will open against the host Saginaw Spirit on Friday.

Moose Jaw’s Core Four

The Warriors are a deep offensive team led by four superstars who stand above the rest.

In the playoffs, forwards Jagger Firkus, Brayden Yager, Matthew Savoie, and defenceman Denton Mateychuk were the top four leading scorers, just as they had dominated throughout the regular season.

“Their four stars are dangerous players and they’re all dangerous for different reasons,” said Button. “When they’re on the ice together, it multiplies their talent, but when they’re on the ice with other players they enhance all the other players’ skills. They open up so many avenues to create offence.”

Firkus and Mateychuk led the way as the WHL’s player of the year and defenceman of the year respectively. They were flanked by Yager, a Pittsburgh Penguins prospect, all season and then they added Buffalo Sabres 2023 first-round pick Savoie at the trade deadline.

Yager finished tied for second on the team with 35 goals and 95 points in the regular season. He added 11 goals and 27 points in the playoffs and provided a big impact as a two-way centre.

“He’s a really good strong two-way player,” said Button. “He can shoot the puck, make plays, and skate in transition. When you have a two-way player that can do so many things in a game, it makes it easy to transition from defence to offence and back to defence.”

Savoie joined the team from the Wenatchee Wild, where he began the season. After being acquired in January, the 5-foot-10 winger helped the Warriors get to the playoffs by putting up 19 goals and 47 points in 23 regular season games.

He added 10 goals and 24 points in the playoffs and really shined during their third-round series with the Blades, recording a goal and seven points.

“When you acquire a top-line player, it enhances everything else,” said Button. For him, his speed and quickness open up ice. When he’s on the ice, defenders have to be aware of where he is [at all times] because of his speed and ability to pass.”

When defences have found ways to slow down Moose Jaw’s four stars, other players have used those opportunities to step up when they needed it most.

Forward Atley Calvert tied Yager for second on the team in points in the regular season with 47 goals and 95 points and has added eight goals and 20 points in the playoffs. Winger Lyden Lakovic’s Game 7 overtime winner against the Blades was the biggest goal of his young career while centre Brayden Schuurman’s overtime winner in Game 3 against the Winterhawks gave the Warriors the stranglehold they needed in the WHL final.

“You have those [top] players and you know how good they are, but they have great supporting pieces in Calvert, Schurmman, [Martin] Rysavy, and [Rilen] Kovacevic,” said Button. “It’s just a deep offensive group.”

The Squadron Commander

The undisputed leader of the Warriors is captain Mateychuk, who became the first Warrior to win defenceman of the year since Kale Clague in 2018.

Mateychuk, a Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick, led Moose Jaw’s defence with 17 goals and 75 points in 52 regular season games. He finished second in playoff scoring with 11 goals and 30 points and was named the WHL playoff MVP.

“There isn’t one thing [that makes him dominant] it’s everything,” said Button. “His intelligence is outstanding and it’s an intelligence of what’s happening around him. He’s got an acute sense of awareness where he’s able to size up everything around him and with that, he makes the right decisions with a sense of calm.

“It’s almost unfair when I watch him because he makes it look too easy.”

Nicknamed the ‘Squadron Commander’, Mateychuk is the quarterback of the Warriors’ defence. After him, the rest of the defensive corps understand they the only need to play within themselves in order to be successful.

“I think [Warriors head coach] Mark O’Leary has done a good job by figuring out what they are and how to play to those expectations,” said Button. “They move the puck up the ice and don’t get themselves into spots where they’re vulnerable. They’re just really efficient.”

Solid Goaltending

In his third season with the Warriors, Jackson Unger settled into the starting role in net for the first time in his career, posting a 15-15-2 record with a 3.08 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.

The 6-foot-1 netminder’s numbers improved in the playoffs with a 16-3 record to go along with a 2.90 GAA and .910 save percentage.

“Unger knows he doesn’t have to stand on his head in order to win and the team doesn’t put him in those spots,” said Button. “He has a real calm in net and he’s smart. They work cohesively together that gives the team a chance to be successful.”

Unger’s poise stood out in the third and fourth rounds, appearing in seven overtime playoff games and winning four of them. He also limited the Winterhawks to three goals or less in the championship series.

Player to Watch: Jagger Firkus

Firkus has been the Warriors most dynamic player this season leading the CHL with 61 goals and 126 points in 63 games this season.

The Seattle Kraken prospect also led the playoffs in scoring with 14 goals and 32 points and took over the championship series against Portland with two big goals to go along with his five points.

“He’s got a drive in him where he wants to be a difference maker,” said Button. “Lots of players want to be difference makers with drive, but when you have the skill that he has, it makes him unstoppable.”

The 5-foot-11 centre proved himself to not be defined as only a goal scorer or a play maker, he was among the league leaders in both. His 61 goals were second to only Prince George Cougars forward Zac Funk (67) in the CHL and his 65 assists placed him seventh in the WHL.

To go along with his obvious talent, Button believes that one of the things that makes Firkus so dangerous is his willingness to go to the areas of the ice where the biggest rewards are and pay the price for doing so.

“He’s always looking to go inside, he never wants to stay outside of the guts of the action,” said Button. “I call him a silent assassin where you underestimate him at your own peril. Whether it’s making a play, driving the puck, or shooting the puck, he’s a dangerous player when the puck is on his stick.”