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Regular season-champion Warriors aim to be No. 1 again in WHL post-season


Jayden Halbgewachs wants to make his "crazy" career year even better.

The 20-year-old Moose Jaw centre led the Western Hockey League in goals (70) and points (129) as the Warriors finished in top spot overall for the first time in franchise history. Now, as the playoffs begin Thursday, he and his teammates are seeking a WHL championship.

"For myself and the other overage players on our team, you want to go out on a high note, and you want to be proud of that last season," said Halbgewachs, a San Jose Sharks prospect who is completing his junior eligibility.

"For us, it's an extra determination that, maybe, we didn't have over the past years. So to go out on a great note would be unbelievable, and I think we're going to be very determined to try and make that happen."

Halbgewachs, who is listed at five-foot-eight and 160 pounds, showed plenty of determination in the regular season. He became the WHL's first 70-goal scorer since former Calgary Hitmen winger Pavel Brendl had 73 in 1998-99. In addition, Halbgewachs' 70 goals tied Moose Jaw's single-season club record, set by Blair Atcheynum almost three decades ago in 1988-89.

Halbgewachs exceeded the 50 goals and 101 points that he produced in 2016-17 by large margins.

Not bad, considering the Regina-area native was never drafted by a National Hockey League team and had to earn a free-agent contract with San Jose in December.

"The numbers I've put up this year are pretty staggering, especially the goals," said Halbgewachs. "Seventy goals is something you never dream of, or think that you're going to get in a year. It's just something that happened this year, which is something that I'll look back on forever and be proud of."

The playoffs begin Thursday with the Kelowna Rockets hosting the Tri-City Americans, while other series start Friday and Saturday. Moose Jaw will host the Prince Albert Raiders, the Eastern Conference's second wild-card entry, in the first game of their best-of-seven series Friday night. The Warriors (52-15-5) finished 32 points ahead of the Raiders (32-27-13), but Halbgewachs said his club will not take anyone lightly in the post-season.

"For us, we're proud of what we've accomplished already, but going into playoffs, it's a fresh start," he said. "We're putting that No. 1 (regular-season finish) behind us and we're going to try to be that No. 1 (team) once again. With that mentality, we're going to be very hungry. We're such a strong group and we've been such a (deep) team this year that, if we play our game, we're going to have no problems."

Other top contenders from the Eastern Conference include the Swift Current Broncos, who placed second overall with 103 points, and Regina Pats (87). But only one of those clubs will survive the first round because they have to face each other in an East Division series, starting Friday in Swift Current.

Top contenders from the Western Conference include the Everett Silvertips (99 points), Portland Winterhawks (94) and Kelowna (93).

Underdogs include the defending-champion Seattle Thunderbirds, who were rebuilt following the departure of some star players, Red Deer Rebels and Vancouver Giants. Vancouver is back in the playoffs after a three-year absence.

"It's exciting for everyone, starting with the top down — ownership, management, coaches, players, our fans, billets," said second-year Giants coach Jason McKee of the return to the post-season.

The Giants qualified by placing third in the B.C. Division and will open on the road Friday against the Victoria Royals.

"Our team has come a long way in regards to the word team," said McKee. "We played like that throughout the year. We had our good times and bad, as you'd expect through 72 games, but our expectations of each other and what we were trying to accomplish never wavered."

During the regular season, the Giants had several close battles with the Royals, who earned home-ice advantage in the opening round by placing second in the B.C. Division.

"It's been a good series all year long  and I expect it to be the same heading into the playoffs," said McKee.

Monte Stewart, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had the wrong name for the Victoria Royals.

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