Given the number and calibre of players the Brandon Wheat Kings are missing, it’s understandable the Western Hockey League team is struggling to score goals and win games.
But the cold, hard reality is the rest of the teams in the WHL aren’t about to sit around and wait for them to get healthy, and with their status in the Eastern Conference playoff race rapidly slipping, the Wheat Kings can’t afford to wait either.
Since blowing out the Swift Current Broncos 8-1 on Feb. 7 to move into sole possession of first place in the East Division, Brandon has dropped six straight games, scoring only seven goals in the process. That slump has dropped the Wheat Kings four points behind the first-place Regina Pats in the division and into seventh in the conference, only four points ahead of the Red Deer Rebels and six ahead of the ninth-place Prince Albert Raiders.
And it’s going to get tougher before it gets easier as the Victoria Royals, whose 2.49 goals against per game is the second-lowest mark in the league, visit Westman Place tonight (at 7:30), intent on extending the Wheat Kings’ misery.
Rihards Bukarts, the club’s hottest scorer before missing the past six games, returned to practice on Tuesday, but offsetting that was the absence of Peter Quenneville — the team leader in points per game — who sat out the session with a lower-body injury, while team scoring leader Jayce Hawryluk remains sidelined.
Richard Nejezchleb, who leads the team with 29 goals this season, said with key players out the Wheat Kings have to simplify their approach.
"I think the first thing for me and I think for all the guys is work ethic," said Nejezchleb, who missed Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Kootenay Ice with an injury, but returned for Monday’s 4-0 shutout loss at the hands of the Regina Pats. "If you’re not putting the puck in the net, we should try our best to be the hardest working team."
It would help if they could get some production on the power play. One of the league leaders in that department most of the season, Brandon is only 1-for-25 with the man advantage in the past six games.
"We’re missing some guys that traditionally have played our power play, so it’s put guys into those situations that aren’t used to them," Wheat Kings head coach/general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. "But that said, we’ve had all kinds of opportunities with experienced guys that play the power play all the time and we haven’t produced."
McCrimmon even tried defenceman Eric Roy out at forward on Tuesday, moving Jens Meilleur back to defence. McCrimmon said he "just wanted to look at some different things."
Whether or not the Wheat Kings will try that again tonight could be affected by Tuesday’s late developments. Defenceman Kord Pankewicz was injured at the end of the practice and limped off the ice, making his status for tonight uncertain. Meanwhile, defenceman Colton Waltz will miss the game as he has been suspended by the WHL for a hit on Pats forward Dryden Hunt on Monday.
Roy, for his part, said he’s willing to try whatever the coaches ask of him.
"The team’s going through kind of a dry spell up front," said Roy, who hasn’t played forward since his first year of bantam. "If it (does) anything to generate offence, I’ll listen to what the coaches have to say and just go out there and play my game."
ONE-TIMERS: D Rene Hunter, who was missed the past two games, practised fully on Tuesday, while C John Quenneville, out for the last three, also skated, but in a non-contact jersey … The WHL hasn’t set a length for Waltz’s suspension, which was handed out under supplemental discipline, meaning the Pats asked for a review of the unpenalized hit. The Regina Leader-Post reports Hunt has a concussion … Independent scouting service Red Line Report has rated John Quenneville 30th overall for this year’s NHL draft, with Hawryluk 40th. Bukarts was 96th … The Royals include pair of former Wheat Kings. D Jordan Fransoo is Victoria’s captain and has four goals and nine assists in 43 games, while LW Jack Palmer has four goals and seven assists in 50 contests.