It takes a true optimist to find the positive in a seven-game losing streak.
The Brandon Wheat Kings have gone 0-5-1-1 since blasting the Swift Current Broncos 8-1 on Feb. 7, being outscored 29-10 in that time with an injury-ravaged lineup. The leaders of the Western Hockey League’s East Division only two weeks ago, the Wheat Kings are suddenly closer to being out of a playoff spot (four points ahead of the Prince Albert Raiders and Red Deer Rebels, who are tied for eighth place) than they are to first place (six points behind the Regina Pats).
During that skid, five of the Wheat Kings’ six highest-scoring forwards have missed time, ranging anywhere from one game to six. In the past three games, Brandon hasn’t even been able to ice a full lineup, twice dressing only 16 skaters.
Which brings us to the silver lining gleaming in the distance: As bleak as the past two weeks have been for the Wheat Kings, the absence of so many key players has given their youngsters a chance to see more ice time than ever before this season, which could make for a stronger club in the long run.
"If you can get through tough times like we’re having now, I think the experience is going to help those players that receive more ice time and more responsibility through the process," said Wheat Kings head coach and general manager Kelly McCrimmon, whose team hosts the Calgary Hitmen at Westman Place tonight at 7:30 p.m. "Yeah, our first-year forwards are playing lots, and that’s going to help them develop and help them down the road."
During this seven-game stretch, rookie forward Tyler Coulter has been the team’s leading scorer, with a goal and three assists. Brett Kitt had his first career two-goal game a week ago, while Braylon Shmyr has played five games in a row for the first time this season
While Jayce Hawryluk and John Quenneville, the team’s top two scorers at forward, both practised fully on Thursday, suggesting they could return from their injuries as soon as tonight, the Wheat Kings were still five players short at practice. Additionally, defenceman Colton Waltz has two games remaining on his suspension, which was finalized at three games on Tuesday, meaning there should still be plenty of chances for the youngsters to play this weekend.
"It’s a huge opportunity just to step up and to see what I can do, with the shortage of people that we have," said Shmyr, who doesn’t have a point during his five-game stretch of playing regularly but did score a shootout goal last week, allowing him to match the best mark in the WHL this season at 2-for-2 on shootouts.
While the extra ice is welcomed, Kitt cautioned that the onus is still on the players to make the most of it.
"You can’t just be mediocre," he said. "At this time of the year, when it’s all about points and you’re just trying to win games and be best in the conference or our division, it’s huge. You can’t be mediocre; you have to be the best."
ONE-TIMERS: The Hitmen are on an eight-game winning streak that has them tied for first in the conference with the Edmonton Oil Kings … Wheat Kings RW Peter Quenneville and D Kord Pankewicz remain out after missing Wednesday’s 5-3 loss to the Victoria Royals with lower-body injuries. D Rene Hunter, who returned to the lineup on Wednesday after missing two games, sat out Thursday’s session as did RW Richard Nejezchleb, who left the Victoria game early, and C/LW Quintin Lisoway …LW Rihards Bukarts is on a nine-game point-scoring streak (seven goals, five assists), the longest by any Wheat King this season.