The return of their two highest-scoring forwards wasn’t enough for the Brandon Wheat Kings to make their long-awaited return to the win column.
Jake Virtanen scored a goal and set up two others as the Calgary Hitmen beat the Wheat Kings 5-4 in front of a crowd of 3,703 Friday night at Westman Place, extending Brandon’s losing streak to eight games.
The game was both a step in the right direction and a bitter disappointment for the Wheat Kings, who trailed 3-0 at one point before making a furious push that fell just short as the Hitmen hung on for their ninth win in a row.
“Its a little frustrating, you get that close to winning,” said forward Jesse Gabrielle, who scored one of the Brandon goals. “You know that you could have won. There’s things that we did that we should have won, but it’s just frustrating with this streak.”
The Hitmen (41-15-3-3) are tied with the Edmonton Oil Kings for first place in the Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference after getting a goal and an assist each from Kenton Helgeson and Connor Rankin, with Adam Tambellini and Elliott Peterson scoring the other Calgary goals.
Brandon scoring leader Jayce Hawryluk returned from a three-game absence to notch a goal and an assist, while linemate John Quenneville, who missed four games, also had an assist. Quintin Lisoway and Ryan Pulock also scored for the Wheat Kings (28-26-6-2), who sit seventh in the conference. Defenceman Kord Pankewicz, another Brandon player returning from injury, assisted on two goals.
Wheat Kings head coach/ general manager Kelly McCrimmon said the returning players helped bring good energy to his team’s lineup.
“I thought we had good energy even early in the game,” McCrimmon said. “Our forecheck was good. We moved the puck pretty well; those things were positive. We didn’t generate enough shots through 40 minutes.”
The Hitmen had a 31-12 edge in shots and a 3-1 lead through the first two periods, with only a number of highlight-reel saves by Jordan Papirny, who had 39 saves on the night, keeping the game as close as it was.
Goals by Gabrielle and Lisoway — who helped Brandon kill a key five-on-three Calgary power play by scoring in the late seconds of the second minor — got the Wheat Kings back to within one, but both times the Hitmen responded, with goals by Tambellini and Rankin.
Pulock’s centring effort deflected in off Calgary goalie Chris Driedger, who made 25 saves, to get Brandon back within a goal, setting the stage for their late push. With Papirny pulled, Rihards Bukarts was stopped on a partial breakaway. On a power play to end the game, the Wheat Kings executed a set play but Pulock’s one-time bullet was stopped, and another shot went off the crossbar as none of Brandon’s prayers were answered.
“I thought at the end we looked a lot more like we like to look, which we haven’t seen a lot of, so that was positive,” McCrimmon said. “Seventeen shots in the third was positive; that’s a part of our game that hasn’t been where it used to be for so much of the season. … Unfortunately when you’re trying to come from behind after two periods, it’s just so important not to give up anything against. We made the game a one-goal game on a couple of occasions where we allowed them to score that next goal and at the end of the night that’s what hurt us,” McCrimmon said.
The Wheat Kings will try to snap the skid once again tonight when they host the Moose Jaw Warriors (7:30 p.m., Westman Place).
“(Tonight’s) a huge game,” Gabrielle said. “I think we’ve got a real shot to get this streak over with.”
ONE-TIMERS: Despite getting a trio of players back from injuries, the Wheat Kings still played one skater short, missing leading goal-scorer LW Richard Nejezchleb (upper-body injury), their points-per-game leader, RW Peter Quenneville, and D Rene Hunter (upper body), while D Colton Waltz served the second game of his three-game suspension …Hitmen scratches included C Mike Winther (lower body) and LW Radel Fazleev (upper body) … Brandon C Chad Robinson played his 250th career WHL game Friday, two days after D Ryan Pulock reached the mark.