Manitoba 3 at Saskatchewan 4

Whatever doubts existed for Saskatchewan after their first game at the 2017 Western Hockey League Cup disappeared Thursday.

Saskatchewan made things interesting in the standings with a 4-3 win over Manitoba, giving both teams 1-1 records after their first two games inside the Markin MacPhail Arena at Winsport in Calgary, Alta.

Ethan Ernst (Kelowna Rockets) scored a pair of goals for Saskatchewan, while defenceman Austin Dycer (Medicine Hat Tigers) scored the game-winning goal on a shot tipped by a Manitoba defenceman and into his own net midway through the third period.

Seth Jarvis (Portland Winterhawks), Manitoba’s hero from Wednesday, continued to bring flash and flare to his province’s offensive attack, creating numerous chances in the first and requiring Saskatchewan goaltender Bryan Thompson (Red Deer Rebels) to be at his best.

That pressure kept building in the first minutes before Manitoba finally broke through. With Noah Wagner (Brandon Wheat Kings) battling for control of the puck on a dump-in, the Winnipeg native tied up his defender long enough for Brody Wilson (Kelowna Rockets) to step out to the side of the net with the puck unchallenged and beat Thompson for the first goal of the game.

Wagner continued to help his team at both ends of the ice, blocking a shot to keep Saskatchewan at bay while a tough shot from the point Nolan Ritchie (Brandon Wheat Kings) was handled easily by Thompson.

Saskatchewan was too hungry for a win on Thursday though, creating a three-on-one opportunity just past the midway mark of the first period. On that rush, Weyburn, Sask. native Ernst elected to shoot, scoring his first of the game on Nikulas Jerris to even things up after 20 minutes.

Manitoba kept up the pressure in the second. Defenceman Jakob Brook (Prince Albert Raiders) cut into the slot and rang the puck off the left post. Two Saskatchewan penalties put them on the defensive as Manitoba kept pressing for the go-ahead goal. Perhaps the best chance from those power play came for Stanley Cooley (Prince George Cougars) as he broke in on a short-handed chance and was barely knocked off the puck to snuff out the chance.

That was only a sign of things to come though as James Form (Kootenay ICE) was allowed to go unchallenged in front of the net, where he potted a rebound to put his Saskatchewan side ahead heading to the third.

Ernst doubled his province’s lead early in the third on a power play, cutting across the slot and sniping his second of the game past Jerris. That goal seemed to wake up Manitoba, as they picked up their strong pace of play minutes later.

Wagner continued to contribute offensively, dishing the puck from behind the net to Jackson Klewchuk, who was alone long enough in the slot to put his first of the tournament, bringing Manitoba within one.

It didn’t take Manitoba long after to tie up the game. Brook controlled the puck in the corner and sent a pass through the front of the crease to a wide-open Ritchie, who had all the time and space he needed to even up the game.

Despite furiously charging back, Manitoba would cause their own demise on a power play midway through the period. After taking a cross-ice feed from Alex Ozar (Saskatoon Blades), Dycer put all his strength into a shot from the blue line, though the puck changed direction after hitting the stick of a Manitoba defenceman, beating a surprised Jerris for the game-winning goal.

The win brought both teams to 1-1 in the standings, with Manitoba still edging their provincial neighbours on goal-differential.

British Columbia 2 at Alberta 6

Alberta’s offence continued to take centre stage as the story of the tournament Thursday in their round-robin contest against British Columbia.

Connor McClennon (Kootenay ICE) had a pair of goals and three points while Kyle Crnkovic (Saskatoon Blades) had a goal and four points as Alberta routed their geographical neighbours to the west.

Kaiden Guhle (Prince Alberta Raiders) and Jake Neighbours (Edmonton Oil Kings) each chipped in with a goal and an assist while Luke Prokop (Calgary Hitmen) had a pair of assists.

Sebastian Cossa (Edmonton Oil Kings) was challenged in net for Alberta, making some tough saves and taking some punishment by British Columbia’s offence, but came out with the victory after making 26 saves on 28 shots.

“I think our whole team bought in and played a good full 60 minutes,” McClennon said. “My linemates and I were clicking really well tonight.”

McClennon opened the scoring 7:53 into the first, with assists from Crnkovic and Jake Sanderson (Kootenay ICE). The wide man on a rare three-on-one rush, McClennon received a beautiful pass from Crnkovic, who deked out Dylan Garland (Kamloops Blazers) for the game’s first goal.

Guhle would add his third of the tournament later in the period on a delayed penalty, taking a pass from down-low and blasting it past Garland. Crnkovic would pick up his second assist of the game, with Ronan Seeley (Edmonton Oil Kings) adding a secondary assist.

Alberta exploded for four goals in the second period to take a stranglehold on the game. McClennon scored his second of the game, taking a pass in the slot from Neighbours and sniping it past Gardland to put Alberta up by three.

Tyson Phare (Prince George Cougars) got one goal back for British Columbia, on a similar play to McClennon’s first goal, with Tyler Horstmann (Edmonton Oil Kings) picking up an assist and Cossa allowing the goal. That goal didn’t deter the Wild Rose province though, who kept the offence coming.

“I thought we played a strong game,” Phare said. “Some bounces just didn’t go our way. We’ve just got to play a little bit tougher and finish our chances when we get them.”

With 8:41 to go in the second, Raphael Pelletier (Edmonton Oil Kings) scored his first of the tournament as Prokop put the puck on net and Neighbours got his stick on it at the last second, deflecting it into the net. Six seconds later, Crnkovic had his first goal of the tournament, cranking a shot from the slot past Garland that went off the post and in.

Neighbours scored later on the the second, depositing a rebound as Guhle and Prokop picked up helpers to round out the scoring for Alberta. For British Columbia, it was a case of too fast and too furious as Alberta’s offence once again dictated the pace, a fact Crnkovic made note of.

“I just try and use my speed and my hockey sense,” Crnkovic said following his four-point night. “My teammates are great.

“They’re making smart plays and everybody’s playing a team game so that’s good to see.”

The lone goal of the third belonged to Kalen Szeto (Saskatoon Blades) as British Columbia worked some nifty passing that spring the Vancouver product in alone. Assists on the second B.C. goal went to Cameron MacDonald (Brandon Wheat Kings) and Ryan Watson (Medicine Hat Tigers).

Making his debut at the tournament, British Columbia goaltender Garland made 23 saves on 29 shots sent his way.

The win kept Alberta’s momentum rolling forward while British Columbia remained winless at the tournament, falling to 0-1-0-1 with a tough matchup against Saskatchewan Friday.

Day Three at the 2017 WHL Cup

With wins from Saskatchewan and Alberta, an exciting third day of the tournament will take place Friday at the Markin MacPhail Centre.

Alberta has already claimed one of the top two spots in the round robin, with a 2-0 record so far. They’ll face the 1-1 squad from Manitoba, who will need a victory to secure themselves home-ice advantage in Saturday’s semi-finals. The game will still be important to Alberta, who can guarantee home-ice advantage through to Sunday’s medal games with a win.

Friday’s early game will pit a 1-1 Saskatchewan squad against an 0-1-0-1 squad from British Columbia. It goes without saying that a win is a must for B.C., who can still finish in second place with a regulation win and a Manitoba regulation loss.

Saskatchewan will be fighting for their own shot at second place, with a regulation victory giving them the best shot at claiming home-ice for one of Saturday’s semi-finals.