There will be a lot more on the line than pride as the Brandon Wheat Kings battle for the Western Hockey League’s East Division pennant over the next eight weeks.
Locked in a three-way dogfight for first place in the division, the Wheat Kings, Swift Current Broncos and Regina Pats are all within a point of each other going into tonight’s games when the Wheat Kings visit the Broncos and the Pats venture up to Edmonton to take on the Oil Kings.
First place in the division guarantees a seed in the top two for the first round of the playoffs, and with the way the Eastern Conference is set up right now a drop out of that spot could easily mean a slide into the fifth, sixth or seventh hole and a decidedly harder path through the first two rounds of the post-season.
"I think it really puts the onus on our team to continue to improve," Wheat Kings head coach/general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. "I think in the conference and in the division, if you stand still you’re going to get run over from behind, so real important that you continue to get better, and that’s something that I think our team has done this year."
No doubt that continued improvement will be necessary based on the degree of difficulty to the Wheat Kings’ schedule for the rest of the season. While Brandon is tied with Swift Current for the division lead, with two games in hand on both the Broncos and the Pats, the actual matchups suggest the Wheat Kings’ spot on top is more precarious than that.
In Brandon’s last 26 games, half of which are road contests, 15 are against teams that have been playing .550 hockey or better this season, with a daunting eight games against clubs that are cruising along at a .600 clip or better. The Wheat Kings have three more games against conference-leading Calgary and two apiece versus the Edmonton Oil Kings and Medicine Hat Tigers, who combine with the Hitmen to possess the best three Eastern records.
There’s an old saying in sports that games in hand are only valuable if you win them, and with the Pats and Broncos both facing home-friendly schedules against less imposing opponents, that adage rings especially true in this case.
AROUND THE WHL: When does a $2.5-million profit equal a loss? The Province of Saskatchewan and the Credit Union Centre know the answer as they’re on the hook for the difference after the 2013 Memorial Cup, hosted by the Saskatoon Blades, fell short of its $3.5-million profit guarantee to the Canadian Hockey League. Daniel Nugent-Bowman of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix writes that the event had the fourth-highest total attendance and the fifth-best average crowd for any Memorial Cup, but still fell short of the expected ticket sales … G Taran Kozun enjoyed a spectacular first week with Seattle. Acquired at the trade deadline from the Kamloops Blazers, Kozun, 19, had shutouts in his first two games as a Thunderbird, earning the CHL goalie of the week award by going 3-0 with a 0.65 goals-against average and a .977 save percentage with his new team … Portland D Derrick Pouliot was named the WHL player of the week, notching a goal and four assists in two games for the Winterhawks … Moose Jaw and Everett have both been fined $500 for an incident at the end of the Silvertips’ 4-3 shootout victory over the visiting Warriors on Saturday. Nick Patterson of the Everett Herald reports that "a fan grabbed one of the (Moose Jaw) player’s sticks and yanked it away, creating an incident that was fortunate not to escalate." The ’Tips were dinged for inadequate security, while the Warriors will pay for the actions of one of their players.
DOWN TO THE WIRE
Games remaining for the top three teams in the WHL’s East Division, including the number of games at home, on the road, against teams with points percentages of .550 or better and against teams at .600 or better:
BRANDON WHEAT KINGS
25-17-4-0, 54 points
Games left: 26
Vs. .550+: 15
Vs. .600+: 8
SWIFT CURRENT BRONCOS
24-18-1-5, 54 points
Games left: 24
Vs. .550+: 11
Vs. .600+: 4
24-19-3-2, 53 points
Games left: 24
Vs. .550+: 11
Vs. .600+: 5