With two weeks between the end of the regular season and their first playoff game, Brandon Midget AAA Wheat Kings head coach Ken Schneider knows his players are rarin’ to go for the start of the post-season.
The hard part of his job is to make sure they’re ready.
The Wheat Kings open their Manitoba AAA Midget Hockey League quarter-final against the Kenora Thistles on Saturday night at 7:30 at the Sportsplex. Having earned a first-round playoff bye with a first-place finish in the West Division, the Wheat Kings last played on Saturday, Feb. 9, then had their regular-season finale against the Thistles cancelled the next day due to an illness running through the Kenora roster.
Since then, Schneider has been trying to make the most of the break while ensuring that his team remains game-ready.
"(Whether resting or playing is better) is the question that we all ask ourselves as coaches, but the break was good just to get some of our bumps and bruises healed up, so we’ll take that," said Schneider, whose team went 32-10-2 during the regular season. "The hard part will be we’re going to have to be ready for maybe a little bit of a sluggish first period just because we haven’t played for so long. We’ve tried to work hard here in practice and have it as much game-like as you can, but there’s nothing like a game to really know where you’re at."
The Wheat Kings should find out quickly against the Thistles. Kenora posted a solid 25-13-6 record during the regular season and the three games the teams played were decided by a single goal, with Brandon winning two in shootouts and losing the other by a 1-0 score.
"Kenora’s one of those teams where there’s six or seven teams in this league that on any given night can win a game and it doesn’t really matter if they’re playing the (league-leading) Winnipeg Wild or they’re playing us," said Brandon Switzer, who had 61 points (23 goals, 38 assists) in 43 regular-season games to share the Brandon team lead and fifth overall in league scoring with Tyler Coulter (33 goals, 28 assists). "… They’re not going to score a lot of goals but they’ll win games based on their defence, so I think it’s going to be a battle of a series."
The Wheat Kings host the first two games of the best-of-five this weekend, with the series shifting to Ontario a week later for the next two contests. A potential Game 5 would be back in Brandon on Sunday, March 3.
Switzer said the Wheat Kings need to take advantage of those first two games at home. To do that they’ll have to work out the butterflies that the Thistles already overcame when they were surprisingly pushed to a third game before overcoming the Eastman Selects in the best-of-three first round. Switzer, in his final season of midget eligibility, said it will be up to the team’s veterans to play with the composure that will rub off on the younger players.
"It’s a stressful time of year for everybody," Switzer said. "It’s the third crack at it for me. I’ve been there as a 15-year-old where I didn’t play a lot and then I was here last year where you were out there every second shift and it was different.
"And this year we have some guys that are really young and they’re playing a lot of time, so it’s going to be tough for them right away, but they’ll adapt and they’ll get used to it."
ONE-TIMERS: The Yellowhead Chiefs and Southwest Cougars both begin the quarter-final round on Friday night. The Chiefs, who also got a first-round bye, host the Pembina Valley Hawks tomorrow at 7:30 p.m., in Shoal Lake. The Cougars, fresh off a two-game sweep of the Central Plains Capitals, visit the Wild at the MTS Iceplex.