A Western Hockey League playoff race that has been uncomfortably tightening for the Brandon Wheat Kings has reached a vice-like level.
With a 6-3 loss to the Edmonton Oil Kings on Friday night at Westman Place, Brandon has fallen into a tie with the Red Deer Rebels for the final two post-season spots in the Eastern Conference. The Prince Albert Raiders are lurking only two points behind with a chance to catch Brandon when they host the Wheat Kings tonight.
The Wheat Kings didn’t do themselves any favours on Friday, giving up four first-period goals in front of a crowd of 4,054.
"You can’t afford to do that against any team," Wheat Kings head coach/general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. "You have to have speed to your game. When we play our best we have our feet moving and we play a fast game. Tonight in the first period I thought our defence were real poor moving the puck. I thought our forwards didn’t win any shifts where we played an entire shift in the opposition’s end. Any time we entered the offensive zone we were one-and-done and back playing defence, so it wasn’t until the second period that we started to skate and work harder."
Mads Eller and Curtis Lazar both scored twice for the conference-leading Oil Kings (47-17-2-1), who also got goals from Brandon Ralph and Reid Petryk. Edmonton did its damage against some of Brandon’s best, with the Wheat Kings’ top defensive pairing of Ryan Pulock and Ryan Pilon posting plus/minuses of -4 and -5, respectively.
John Quenneville, Rihards Bukarts and Ryley Lindgren scored the goals for the Wheat Kings (31-28-6-3), with Eric Roy and Jesse Gabrielle picking up two assists apiece.
It took only seven minutes for Edmonton to chase Brandon goaltender Curtis Honey from the net with three goals on eight shots. That last two of those goals, by Ralph and Lazar, came only nine seconds apart. Jordan Papirny came in and stopped 28 of 31 shots the rest of the way.
"I don’t think the goaltending change was on Curtis at all," McCrimmon said. "You’re trying to find a spark for your team."
The Oil Kings tacked on one more before the end of the first period, taking an advantage of a turnover with Eller scoring his second of the night.
Brandon came up with a better effort in the second period and got back within a couple goals as Quenneville scored on a power play and Bukarts added an even-strength marker, but then disaster struck.
Team scoring leader Jayce Hawryluk was given a charging major and thrown out of the game. The Wheat Kings killed off all but the last 1:15 of that penalty before Chad Robinson was called for high-sticking and Lazar potted his second goal on the ensuring five-on-three power play.
"Our penalty kill work hard and I thought gave us a lot of momentum tonight in different situations," McCrimmon said. "We just had too many penalties through that middle stretch in the period, the major, the two different occasions where we were (down) five-on-three and we were one clear away from getting through it and gave up the fifth goal, which had we not given that up I thought we had some momentum going into those penalty situations and a kill would have added to that."
Petryk made the lead 6-2 in the third period before Lindgren popped in a power-play goal after the puck rolled out of the glove of Edmonton goalie Tristan Jarry, who finished with 27 saves.
The Wheat Kings now face a key battle tonight against the Raiders (7:30, CKLQ), and Lindgren said the team needs to come out of the gate with the work ethic that was missing against the Oil Kings.
"We’ve got to come out and skate and we’ve just got to outwork them," he said. "Tonight I think we got outworked, especially in the first period, and if we can outwork Prince Albert, which we can and we have in the past, I think we’ll be fine."
ONE-TIMERS: Oil Kings LW Mads Eller did not return to the game after the second-period hit by Wheat Kings RW Jayce Hawryluk, which will be reviewed by the league. Hawryluk has already been suspended twice this season … Brandon scratched RW Peter Quenneville and RW Jens Meilleur, who are both out week-to-week with lower-body injuries, as well as LW Braylon Shmyr … Edmonton’s Tristan Jarry was named February’s WHL goalie of the month this week.