Pending Blades graduates “hungry” for upcoming playoff run
Saskatoon, SK – The sun will soon set on Saskatoon Blades captain Aidan De La Gorgendiere, alternate captain Blake Gustafson, and forward Josh Pillar’s WHL careers.
All three 20-year-olds graduate from the league following this season and have one common goal in mind before their junior careers finish; winning the Memorial Cup.
“I’m hungry. I want to win, and I think we’ve got the team to do it.” said De La Gorgendiere.
“It’s everything to me,” explained Gustafson. “It feels like the last 18-years of lacing them up has all been for these two months. So I really hope we can make that happen and I believe we can.”
“I think that’s everyone’s dream playing in the Western Hockey League is to win the memorial cup,” exclaimed Pillar. “I think our team could do it. It’s super exciting, that would be a great end to the career.”
Named the 60th captain in franchise history prior to the beginning of the 2021-22 season, De La Gorgendiere missed last year’s postseason due to an injury. Saskatoon was eliminated in round one by the Moose Jaw Warriors in five games. The Langley, BC. product is back at the spring dance after a career season with 12 goals and 65 points in as many games and says he’s confident in his group to get the job done.
“The big difference this year is how close we are as a team,” explained De La Gorgendiere. “Everyone in there is a brother and we go to war with each other every single night and I feel like that has allowed us to be a great hockey team this year.”
That difference has shown on the ice. The Bridge City bunch finished 48-15-4-1 for 101 points, the fifth time in franchise history the club’s achieved 100+ points in a season. The team’s .743 winning-percentage is also the third-best in 59-years of the franchise.
“It’s even more special because I don’t think a lot of people thought we were going to be one of the top teams this year.” said Pillar.
The Toronto Maple Leafs prospect was also part of that team who bowed out in the first-round last year. The Saskatoon, SK. native showed up to play in the series however potting three goals and four points. Pillar says while the club has skill up and down the lineup, it’s the fact everyone’s bought that’s played a big role in their success.
“We’re so committed to our structure and committed to doing the right things,” began Pillar. “Playing harder than every team, every night, and I think that’s what makes us successful.”
Something Pillar says is important once playoff hockey begins.
“There already is a lot of compete and sacrifice but it almost just gets doubled with everyone fighting for their lives.”
Experience with those traits as well is Ardrossan, AB’s own Gustafson. The towering 6-foot-4 blueliner played ten games in the postseason last year as a member of the Red Deer Rebels. A 2017 tenth-round of his former club, Gustafson tallied two goals and three points before being eliminated by the eventual WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings.
“It was pretty hard to lose out in the second-round against the Oil Kings and that feeling has resonated with me up until today,” reflected Gustafson. “All summer, every day, I was just thinking about that and I wanted it back. Now we get another shot at it and it’s exciting for everybody.”
Gustafson was acquired by the Blades Sept. 28th at the start of the season, registering two goals and 19 points in 59 games with the Pac-Man logo on his chest. Named an alternate captain a couple of months into his tenure with the team, “Gus the Bus” formed one of the top shutdown pairs in the league with defence partner Charlie Wright.
“We have 25 good guys in the room,” explained Gustafson. “We don’t just have leaders with letters on their jerseys, I think we have 15-20 guys that would be a big leader on any other team. I think we all just have the same common goal, and the common idea, and common work ethic.”
The Blades square off with WHL Phenom Connor Bedard and the Regina Pats in round-one, the first time the provincial rivals have met in the post season since 2006. 14,768 fans sold out SaskTel Centre for the final two home games of Saskatoon’s regular season when the Pats were in town, something the players hope to see again.
“I’m looking forward to the atmosphere of the crowd,” said Pillar. “I know we kind of had that against Regina this past week, but I think it could even ramp up a little more.”
While the spotlight shines brighter this time of year, especially playing against a generational talent like Bedard, Gustafson says the goal and mindset remains the same.
“Definitely a bit of excitement in the room looking forward to playoffs. There’s a bit of a buzz but I think everything is business as usual.”
NHL drafted talent is spread throughout the lineup with the forwards like Brandon Lisowsky (Toronto Maple Leafs), Conner Roulette (Dallas Stars), and recently signed Edmonton Oiler Jake Chiasson. Even with high-end talent, the Blades have seen contributions from everybody on the roster. Five different members cracked 20+ goals, while nine total surpassed double-digit markers.
“I think we’ve shown all year that we can compete against the best teams, and I consider ourselves one of the best teams,” boasted De La Gorgendiere. “We’ve just got to stick to what we know and play how we do play, and good things will happen to us.”
Defence has been a massive strength for Saskatoon who only allowed 171 goals against during the regular season, the second fewest behind the Seattle Thunderbirds. With depth both up front and on the back end, and one of the best goalie tandems in the WHL with rookie Austin Elliott and Ethan Chadwick, the Blades are poised for a deep run in the postseason.
“It’s been an incredible year, lot of friendships and fond memories that I have,” closed De La Gorgendiere
Their time isn’t done yet, looking to create one more special moment before they say goodbye to the WHL.
Saskatoon owns home-ice advantage in round one vs the Pats. Game 1 at SaskTel Centre is Friday, Mar. 31st at 7:00pm, followed by Game 2 Sunday, Apr. 2nd at 4:00pm.