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Wheat King attack gets back on track

The Brandon Wheat Kings are finding their scoring touch again.

The fifth-highest scoring team in the Western Hockey League, the Wheat Kings’ recent slump coincided with a dry spell on offence as the club scored only seven goals in one six-game stretch. But Brandon has exploded for 13 goals in the past two games — wins over the Moose Jaw Warriors and Lethbridge Hurricanes — giving the team momentum heading into road matchups with the Saskatoon Blades tonight and the Swift Current Broncos on Sunday (CKLQ, 6:30 both nights).

Wheat Kings head coach and general manager Kelly McCrimmon said the increase in offence can be credited in part to the easing of what had been an extremely busy schedule plus the opportunity to get key players back from injuries.

“I think health would be part of it,” said McCrimmon, whose team enters tonight’s game seventh in the Eastern Conference at 30-26-6-2. “I think the opportunity to recharge a little bit as well would be part of the reason compared to the schedule we did have recently. … And we played two teams that are going to miss the playoffs as well, so I think you have to keep that in perspective, also.”

Indeed, the Hurricanes have surrendered the most goals in the WHL this season and the Warriors aren’t far behind, ranking fifth from the bottom in that category. Still, in the game before those back-to-back wins, the Wheat Kings scored four times against the Calgary Hitmen — who were tied for first in the conference at the time —but were done in by defensive deficiencies. From where they were only a week ago, it’s a major sign of progress.

Throughout the lineup, players are producing. Tim McGauley had his first career hat trick against Moose Jaw; Ryan Pulock (three goals, four assists) and Eric Roy (one goal, three assists) are on four-game point-scoring streaks; Jayce Hawryluk (three goals, four assists) and John Quenneville (four assists) have points in all three games since both returned from injuries, while Jesse Gabrielle (three goals, one assists) is also on a three-game run; Rihards Bukarts, who had an assist retroactively added for the Lethbridge game, giving him a three-point night, has points in 11 of the last 12 games he’s played (eight goals, nine assists).

Pulock, the team captain, said players like Hawryluk and Quenneville not only add offence to the lineup, but help create opportunities for others.

“Obviously it adds more depth to our lineup and I think other guys can worry about their game more,” said Pulock, whose 61 career goals have tied him with Brad McCrimmon for the team record among defencemen. “Maybe when they were out of the lineup (others were) trying to do too much or kind of getting out of their element a little bit.”

Now the challenge is to maintain that offensive production and find a way to balance it with better defence as Brandon is averaging more than 43 shots against in the past six games. McCrimmon said the biggest problem has been the first periods, during which Brandon has given up 16 or more shots in four of those six games.

“That would be an area where we need to improve,” he said. “When you look at playing on the road, which we are this weekend, it’s going to be magnified that we need to have better first periods than we have. And it’s interesting, our first periods, it’s not that they’ve been bad for the most part, but we’ve given up too many chances and too many shots.”

ONE-TIMERS: The Wheat Kings are still missing one key scorer, points-per-game leader Peter Quenneville. The right-winger is out week-to-week with a lower-body injury … D Jordan Thomson of Wawanesa is expected to play for the Blades tonight after making his debut with Saskatoon last night … The Blades are last in the East Division and second-last in the conference at 16-43-2-3.


Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 1, 2014

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