No matter what the Western Hockey League schedule says, the Brandon Wheat Kings are treating this weekend like the playoffs.
The Wheat Kings play a home-and-home series with the Regina Pats, visiting the Queen City tonight (7:30, CKLQ) before hosting the East Division leaders tomorrow. The Pats are trying to lock down the division crown, and the No.2 seed in the first round of the playoffs that goes with it, while the Wheat Kings have even more on the line as they try to return to the playoffs after missing out on the post-season last year for the first time in 13 years.
"Big games for both teams and sometimes you get to the final weekend and it’s the exact opposite," Wheat Kings head coach/general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. "It means everything to one team and has no meaning to your opponent at all. I think for both teams it’s better when it has impact for either club."
The Wheat Kings (32-29-6-3) go into tonight’s game tied with the Red Deer Rebels for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference and only two points ahead of the Prince Albert Raiders. With three points in the two-game series, Brandon would earn a post-season berth outright, while a single victory would guarantee the Wheat Kings at least a tiebreaker for the final playoff spot. In a game that has such serious playoff implications, it’s natural for the Wheat Kings to count on their veterans who have playoff experience.
"I think we’re going to have to get a quick start, that’s very important for us," said defenceman Rene Hunter, who played in six playoff games as a rookie in 2011 and four more the next season, suiting up in Brandon’s second-round series with the Edmonton Oil Kings after missing the first round. "I think we need to execute and just stick with the game (plan). It’s going to be up and down, and we’ve just got to play through."
The Wheat Kings have been up and down recently, losing eight straight games last month as they battled injury woes, rebounding to win three in a row, then dropping the next four before notching a wild 8-5 win over the Saskatoon Blades on Tuesday.
McCrimmon said his team is very focused right now on making sure its game is in order for this weekend.
"The attention to detail, the work ethic, discipline, those types of things are all important," he said. "Our first game’s in Regina, so getting off to a good start will be key, handling their top players — they’ve got some real good forwards — so those will all be things we’ll talk about, focus on. But at the same time we’ll also put a lot of emphasis into how we’re playing and making sure that we play at high level."
ONE-TIMERS: The Pats need only one more point this weekend, or a loss by the Swift Current Broncos in one of their two games with the Moose Jaw Warriors, to clinch first in the division and the No.2 seed in the conference … Wheat Kings RW Jens Meilleur, who has missed five games with a lower-body injury, practised fully on Thursday.