Having looked up at the Swift Current Broncos for much of the Western Hockey League season, the Brandon Wheat Kings have a chance to look them in the eye tonight.
The Wheat Kings enter tonight’s game against the Broncos at Westman Place two points behind Swift Current for first place in the East Division. With as much on the line as there is in the game, Wheat Kings head coach/general manager Kelly McCrimmon expects to see a motivated group of players come out of the Brandon locker-room.
"It’s a big game, it’s an important game," said McCrimmon, whose team is also coming off its longest break of the second half, playing for the first time in six days. "It’s the first opportunity we’ve had to pull even with Swift Current, so our players are excited based on that. But at the same time your focus has to be similar to what it would be any other night."
As big as tonight’s game is for the Wheat Kings, there’s still plenty more to the overall picture. Brandon and Swift Current will meet four more times after tonight, and even if the Wheat Kings catch the Broncos, there’s no guarantee they’ll be in first place as the Regina Pats are second in the division, only one point off the lead, with a chance to leapfrog into the top spot when they take on the Kootenay Ice. Brandon plays its next three games against East Division opponents, visiting the Saskatoon Blades tomorrow before going to Swift Current on Wednesday, and forward Jayce Hawryluk said the Wheat Kings want to continue a surge of strong play that has them 3-1 so far on their current home stand and 6-1-1-0 in their last eight home games.
"Every game we go into we want to get the two points, but these games coming up are huge," said Hawryluk, who has 13 goals and 41 points in 38 games, and shares the team plus/minus lead with rookie Tyler Coulter at +12. "They’re all against division rivals and teams we need to get points on."
The Broncos have made some additions since they last met the Wheat Kings, picking up Nathan Burns — averaged more than a point per game this season — from Saskatoon on New Year’s Day before adding some depth up front by acquiring former Wheat King Geordie Maguire from Regina just before the deadline.
Although Brandon is only 1-2 against Swift Current this season, McCrimmon said his team has played well against the Broncos in their past two meetings, and he wants the Wheat Kings to continue to play similarly tonight.
"We’ve played pretty well against Swift," McCrimmon said. "Our last time at home, I thought we played real well (in a 4-3 loss). The game before in Swift Current (a 3-2 shootout win) was a real good game for us also. … When we played them on Dec. 6 we had 41 shots. When we played them on Nov. 19, we had 49 shots, so we’ve had chances. I think we’ve been able to generate offence and we’ll need to look to try to do those types of things."
ONE-TIMERS: LW Richard Nejezchleb, who leads the Wheat Kings with 23 goals, sat out the bulk of Thursday’s practice, but is expected to play tonight.