Ryan Pulock hammers a slapshot in Brandon Wheat Kings practice Tuesday. (COLIN CORNEAU/THE BRANDON SUN)
Those wanting a look at what the first round of the Western Hockey League playoffs might be like can get a good idea tonight at Westman Place.
The Brandon Wheat Kings host the Moose Jaw Warriors (7 p.m.) in a preview of a potential Eastern Conference first-round matchup.
The Warriors, regular-season champions of the East Division, are locked into the second seed in the conference for the first round of the playoffs. If the season were to end today, the Wheat Kings would be the eighth seed and face the Edmonton Oil Kings, but Brandon has designs on moving up.
"These last couple game are basically playoff games," said Wheat Kings defenceman Ryan Pulock, whose team follows the game against the Warriors with a home-and-home set versus the Regina Pats this weekend to wrap up the regular season. "We can move up with a few wins this week, hopefully, and it would be good to get a win (against Moose Jaw) because if we play these guys (in the playoffs) it would be good to show them that we’re ready."
While they clinched their playoff spot on the weekend, the Wheat Kings could finish anywhere from fifth to eighth place in the conference. They trailed the seventh-place Saskatoon Blades by a single point entering last night and are only two behind the Pats and the Kootenay Ice.
Brandon head coach Cory Clouston wants his players to focus on refining their team game heading into the playoffs and said it doesn’t hurt that they have room to move up in the standings.
"It definitely puts some importance on the game," he said. "Obviously, there are going to be some teams over the last couple games that can’t move up or down, so it does put a little different spin on it for sure."
The Warriors’ opportunities for the final week are not quite as clear as they’re too far back of the conference-leading Edmonton Oil Kings to mount a challenge. However, their division title only guarantees them the No.2 seed for the first round of the playoffs, so their main challenge lies in staying ahead of the Medicine Hat Tigers and Calgary Hitmen to ensure that they keep that seed and the accompanying home-ice advantage intact through the second round of the playoffs.
Of course for any playoff-bound teams at this time of year, the top priority is to ensure that they’re ready to go when the games really start to count next week in the playoffs. Wheat Kings defenceman Ryley Miller believes his team is close to playoff form.
"We always have room for improvement, but right now we’re playing really good," he said. "… I think we’re ready to go."
While everyone expects playoff-style hockey to be the norm in the final week of the regular season, there will be one significant difference between tonight’s game and the first round of the post-season: The locale.
With Westman Place hosting the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair from March 26-31, the Wheat Kings will have to play their home games in the first round in Winnipeg’s MTS Centre.
ONE-TIMERS: RW Mark Stone and D Brodie Melnychuk missed the Wheat Kings’ practice on Tuesday for what Clouston termed "maintenance days" along with the injured quartet of C Kevin Sundher (concussion, one week), D Rene Hunter (upper body, one week), LW/D Dylan Kuczek (shoulder, one week) and C Daniel Asham (knee, day-to-day) … A 2012-13 Wheat King season ticket is up for grabs in tonight’s Pucks 4 Pets tennis-ball toss. Proceeds go to the Brandon Humane Society.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 14, 2012