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Warriors depth a key factor in playoff success heading into Game 5 against Broncos

With top scorers putting up points, third and fourth lines have chipped in regularly throughout first two rounds of postseason
Warriors forward Ethan Hughes picks up the puck during a practice drill on Wednesday afternoon at the Moose Jaw Events Centre.

MOOSEJAWTODAY.COM -- To say the least, the top offensive players in the Moose Jaw Warriors line-up have come to play in the 2024 Western Hockey League playoffs. 

After Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Swift Current Broncos on Wednesday night, three of the top five scorers in the league and four of the top 10 are Warriors, thanks to consistent and steady output right from Game 1 against Brandon.

But even with the likes of WHL scoring leader Denton Mateychuk (8-5-12-17), Jagger Firkus (8-6-9-15), Brayden Yager (8-7-6-13), Matthew Savoie (7-6-6-12) and Atley Calvert (8-3-5-8) getting things done, it’s the team’s depth that has made the Warriors an absolute force through the first eight games of the postseason.

In the first round, it was fourth-liner Owen Berge who chipped in a couple of goals early in the series. And against the Broncos, Game 4 offered a perfect example, first when fourth-line rookie Ethan Hughes scored his first of the playoffs and later when third-line forward Rilen Kovacevic scored a beauty of an insurance goal.

Even outside of offensive contributions, the Warriors' third and fourth lines have done a solid job keeping the other team in check, to the point that almost everyone on the team is in the positive when it comes to plus/minus -- a sign that other teams are having a tough time putting up points no matter who is on the ice.

“We’re a high-powered offensive team and everyone knows that, so the more we can focus on our defensive game and our ability to shut them down as well as put up the offensive numbers like we always have, we’re going to get those wins,” said Kovacevic, who has two goals and six points thus far in the postseason.

“Then any time someone like myself or my linemates can get on the board, it only helps our first and second line and takes some weight off their shoulders. That’s only going to help us in the long run.”

Warriors head coach Mark O’Leary was looking for exactly that kind of contribution up and down the line-up heading into the playoffs.

“That’s what playoffs are all about,” he said. “We know that Firkus, Savoie, Yager, Calvert, those guys are going to bring it every night and their job is to bring offence. But when you can get guys like Hughes and Berge and Kovacevic to chip in offensively, it’s huge for the group.”

For his part, Kovacevic has embraced his third-line role, especially when slotting in behind the lethal offensive powerhouses in the top six.

“It’s been new to me since I got here, and I think I’ve been doing a good job to get ahold of what I need to do now,” he said. “We have everybody doing their job and that’s one of the things that’s making a difference.”

The cohesiveness of the lines has also been a factor. The top three trios have spent the majority of games together since the trade deadline, and as a result, have become exceptionally familiar with one another and their play styles.

“That’s one thing that we’ve built,” Kovacevic said. “We have lines that can beat the other team up and down the line-up, and that’s most important. If we can get on the board, that’s just something that helps out our scorers and that’s how we’re going to beat these teams.”

One thing that’s for certain is there can’t be any layup heading into Game 5 at the Moose Jaw Events Centre on Friday, and the Warriors will need all four lines going once again if they’re to finish off the Broncos.

“It’ll be no different with a team like that, they’re not going away, that’s for sure,” Kovacevic said. “ We’ve seen that from them, in the third period where we’re up and they’re down, they don’t go away at all. We’re expecting a big pushback, so this needs to be the best game of the series and we hope can finish it off."