A moment several members of the Brandon Wheat Kings have spent the past two years waiting for finally arrives tonight.
The Wheat Kings visit the Regina Pats tonight (7:30 CKLQ pre-game show) in Game 1 of their Western Hockey League first-round playoff series. Brandon missed the playoffs for the first time in 13 years last season and the players are anxious to make up for lost time.
"It’s been an exciting week here," Wheat Kings captain Ryan Pulock said. "You can tell from the energy in the room, guys are excited, the coaching staff’s excited. It’s a fun time of year and we’re looking forward to getting going here."
That the opposition is the Pats will do nothing to quell the Wheat Kings’ enthusiasm. Although they haven’t met in the post-season since 2002-03, the teams have maintained a long-running rivalry, stoked by six meetings already since Christmas. After facing each other in the final two games of the regular season, it’s possible the teams could play up to nine games in a row when all is said and done.
"We know it’s going to be a hard-fought series," second-year Brandon centre Tim McGauley said. "Regina’s a rival for us, and it’s going to be a good one and it’s going to be an entertaining one, too."
The teams were neck-and-neck through much of the regular season before the Pats (39-26-4-3) pulled away down the stretch to lock up the East Division pennant. While the Wheat Kings (34-29-6-3) finished eight points behind the Pats, Brandon won the season series 5-3, sweeping the season-ending home-and-home to clinch a playoff spot and earn the matchup with Regina in the Eastern Conference quarter-finals.
Wheat Kings head coach/general manager Kelly McCrimmon believes Brandon’s final-week surge, winning three straight games to avoid a tiebreaker or the possibility of missing the playoffs entirely, will help his team hit the ground running against the Pats.
"We needed to play well to get into the playoffs, so we’ve handled some pressure, which I think is encouraging," he said, adding that a return to good health — after a rash of injuries that contributed to a late-season slump — has aided in Brandon’s preparations. "… The energy that we had in practice by having more guys at our disposal in terms of our lineup has really helped us. And then I think the team’s getting some confidence back, which we had lost a little bit. So that’s really important, obviously, at this time of year as well."
The Wheat Kings had nearly their full roster available for Friday’s practice, with only seventh defenceman Kord Pankewicz, who was hit in the face by a stick earlier in the week, and rookie forward Brett Kitt missing the skate.
They also go in from the enviable position of having most of their key performers playing well.
McGauley is on a team-high eight-game point-scoring streak (three goals, eight assists), while linemate Richard Nejezchleb is on a four-game streak (two goals, six assists). Peter Quenneville, the third player on that unit, returned from injury to rack up five goals and two assists in the final two games of the season, while leading scorer Jayce Hawryluk should be fresh after completing a four-game suspension.
On the back end, Pulock produced two goals and six assists in the last three games, while Eric Roy has notched 11 points in his past 12 contests.
"I think our confidence is up and I think that’s important," Pulock said. "We had a little stretch there where we weren’t winning many games and (had) some injuries and it was tough, but we got guys back before (last) weekend and we had I thought a pretty solid weekend. We won, but not only did we win, I think we got better as a team, and I think that’s important as well. It was the type of weekend we needed going in, and it’s time for basically a new season now."
ONE-TIMERS: G Jordan Papirny is playing well, with a 2.94 GAA and a .912 save percentage since returning from the Christmas break, but keeping the goals and shots against down has been an issue, with Brandon’s 269 goals against the most of any playoff team. The Wheat Kings were fifth in the WHL with 271 goals scored … The Pats also host Game 2 Sunday, with the series shifting to Brandon for Game 3 on Wednesday (7 p.m.) and Game 4 on Friday (7:30 p.m.) at Westman Place … If Game 6 is necessary, the Wheat Kings will host it at Dauphin’s Credit Union Place on Monday, March 31, while Westman Place is occupied by the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair … The Wheat Kings and Pats have met in the playoffs seven times, with Regina winning the first four and Brandon taking the last three.