The Brandon Wheat Kings have some work to do before the Western Hockey League playoffs.
With a chance to make a statement against a team they could face in the first round of the post-season, the Wheat Kings were instead soundly beaten 5-1 by the Calgary Hitmen in front of a crowd of 2,858 on Tuesday night at Westman Place.
"Obviously we’re disappointed with the effort," Wheat Kings defenceman Colton Waltz said. "They’re a top team, and we can’t come out limp like we did today or you’re going to lose games against those good teams."
Brady Brassart and Ben Thomas had a goal and an assist each for the Hitmen (44-15-3-4), who took over sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference, two points ahead of the Edmonton Oil Kings. Connor Rankin, Greg Chase and Pavel Padakin also scored for Calgary, which has earned 25 of a possible 26 points in its past 13 games.
The Wheat Kings (31-27-6-3) had earned points in each of their previous four games, but fell six points behind the sixth-place Swift Current Broncos in the conference with only five games to go.
Making matters worse for the Wheat Kings, their advantage slipped to only four points on the Prince Albert Raiders and Red Deer Rebels, who are tied for the final playoff spot and both have a game in hand on Brandon.
The Wheat Kings didn’t break the shutout until the final minute and a half of the game as Rihards Bukarts finally solved Calgary goalie Chris Driedger, who made 23 saves.
Wheat Kings head coach and general manager Kelly McCrimmon said his team didn’t work hard enough to create chances.
"When you look at the things you can control, I think your work ethic is one of those things, so I was disappointed that we didn’t win more battles, win more races to pucks, those types of things," he said. "… If that’s the case, that’s going to show up in all three zones, and I thought at times it did."
The Hitmen kept Jordan Papirny jumping in the first period, firing 18 shots at the Wheat Kings’ goalie, who ended up with 35 saves on the night. Papirny did a pretty good job of keeping Calgary at bay, making some big saves after Brandon turnovers, but the Hitmen eventually got to him as Thomas joined the attack, putting his first effort off the post before lifting his second shot into the net.
The Hitmen didn’t have as many shots in the second period, but they made the most of them, scoring three times, including power-play goals by Rankin and Brassart, with Chase’s goal coming after a Brandon turnover.
"Turnovers directly led to both penalties, which in turn Calgary scored on their power play, and turnovers led to the five-on-five goal," McCrimmon said. "So for me on the night, we didn’t do a good job of taking care of the puck."
The last time the Wheat Kings hosted the Hitmen, on Feb. 21, Brandon fell behind early before battling back for a close 5-4 loss. This time, however, there was no late challenge as the Wheat Kings managed only four shots in the final frame, one of them Bukarts’ wraparound goal, which came with 1:29 to go and his team trailing 5-0.
With another tough battle coming on Friday, when the Oil Kings visit Westman Place, Wheat Kings forward John Quenneville said his team will need to bring a lot more to the table.
"We’re playing a good Edmonton team and we’ve got to show up with a good work ethic," said Quenneville, who had a third-period fight with Calgary’s Kenton Helgeson, kicking off a mini-brawl as rookies Jesse Gabrielle of the Wheat Kings and Terrell Draude of the Hitmen dropped the gloves just as the first bout was ending. "And if we don’t, we won’t be in good shape."
ONE-TIMERS: The Wheat Kings scratched RW Jens Meilleur and RW Peter Quenneville — both out week-to-week with lower-body injuries — as well as LW Braylon Shmyr … Hitmen scratches included C Mike Winther (lower body, day-to-day) and LW Radel Fazleev (upper body, 1-2 weeks) … Calgary C Connor Rankin left the game in the second period after a hit along the boards by Brandon C John Quenneville … Wheat Kings D Kord Pankewicz played forward last night.