Home not so sweet for Wheat Kings


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The Brandon Wheat Kings find themselves in some ominous waters as they make their push for the Western Hockey League playoffs.

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The Brandon Wheat Kings find themselves in some ominous waters as they make their push for the Western Hockey League playoffs.

Brandon (19-20-5-0), which is visiting the Moose Jaw Warriors (28-15-0-3) at the Moose Jaw Events Centre tonight at 7 o’clock, doesn’t have history on its side right now.

The culprit? A sub-par 8-11-2-0 record at home this season. The Wheat Kings are 11-9-3-0 on the road.

Wheat Kings head coach and general manager Marty Murray has been around the game a long time, and while teams are typically better at home, that’s not always the case.

“It’s a lot about the personnel,” Murray said. “Sometimes you’re looser on the road. You don’t feel like you have to put that show on and you can keep the game a little simpler. The pressure is on the home team usually.

“It’s hard to put a finger on it but it’s one of the things we’ve talked about a lot this year, is playing better at home.”

In the WHL’s Internet era, which began in the 1996-97 season, Brandon has had a sub-.500 mark just twice at home, when it went 13-19-3-1 in 2012-13 and 13-19-2-2 in 1999-00. The unifying factor in both cases was the team missed the playoffs.

In fact, in the last 25 seasons — not including the 2021 Regina hub — Brandon has won 20-plus home games 18 times and has 25 or more wins 11 times.

“I grew up here and it’s always been a tough barn to play in for the visiting team,” said forward Nolan Ritchie, whose father Darren skated with Murray on Wheat Kings teams in the 1990s. “It’s real disappointing but we have a little stretch here and hopefully we can regroup and bring in some wins here at home.”

Six of their eight home victories this season came in a pair of three-game streaks, but they’ve also endured an ugly six-game losing streak stretching from Oct. 5 to Nov. 5.

“It’s been pretty disappointing,” forward Calder Anderson said. “At the start of the year, we kind of dug ourselves a little bit of a hole with our record at home. I think the biggest thing for us is just having consistency at home.

“We’ve beat some pretty good teams here at home, Seattle and Portland, and we’ve lost to some bottom teams. It’s just playing with that consistent level and bringing our A-game night in and night out.”

Veteran forward Brett Hyland agreed.

“We feel like we could be letting the fans down a little bit,” Hyland said. “That’s pretty hard. We really want to start getting on the right track back here and getting fans wanting to come to the games. We’re just going to continue working towards that.”

The Wheat Kings currently hold a .429 winning percentage at home, with just five teams worse on home ice. Of the five, only the Vancouver Giants (17-20-4-2 overall, .381 on home ice) and Kelowna Rockets (14-25-3-0 overall, .369 at home) are in a playoff spot, and that’s likely because there are two fewer squads fighting for the post-season in the 10-team Western Conference than the 12-team Eastern Conference.

Murray said a big part of Brandon’s hometown advantage is geographic. Teams have to travel a few hours to get here, but that’s meaningless if the Wheat Kings don’t play the right way.

“I think it’s playing with pace and intensity and winning puck battles,” Murray said. “We don’t expect guys to run around with no structure but finishing checks and playing physical and just being hard to play against. Any time you’re hard on skilled players, taking away time and space, it’s hard for them to do things.

“If you can make them uncomfortable right out of the gate, that sets the tone. A lot of times, when you make really good players or really good players comfortable, then that’s when their confidence goes up, and now you’re fighting an uphill battle.”

While it’s rare, the Wheat Kings have had a better record on the road than at home in the past. Brandon had fewer wins in the 2019-20 season, but that was because it played fewer games at Westoba Place before the season was cancelled due to the pandemic.

Prior to that, the Wheat Kings did it in 2002-03, 2008-09 and 2011-12, but in those cases, they were over .500 both at home and on the road.

Their success on the road started with a successful trip out west in October when they went 3-2 against the B.C. Division and 2-1 against Central Division opponents in Alberta.

Hyland, who is set to return to the lineup soon after missing five games with a lower-body injury, said that was important.

“The B.C. trip really set it off,” he said. “We had a good run there. I’m not really sure what the deal is with us on the road. We come out and we play hard against teams. We just have to find a way to bring that back home. I don’t know if we’re getting too relaxed sometimes but we’re definitely trying to work on that and be more consistent home or away.”

On the road, Brandon has had a winning record — in other words, more victories than a combination of losses, overtime losses and shootout losses — in eight of the last 25 seasons.

Anderson said there are reasons why it can be easier to play away from home.

“You’re maybe a little more relaxed going into the game,” Anderson said. “There is so much going on, on the road, the bus trip, staying at a hotel, there is so much going on that it almost takes your mind off the game a little bit and I think that can help players and teams relax and just be ready to go for the game.

“Whereas at home, you’re kind of thinking about it all day, and that’s pretty much all you’re doing all day is just preparing for the game.”

It’s certainly not like all hope is lost for the ninth-place Wheat Kings, who have 13 of their remaining 24 games on home ice. They are three points behind the eighth-place Regina Pats and the seventh-place Swift Current Broncos, who have played two fewer games.

“Over the next four games, we play top contenders in our conference and those are obviously huge points,” Murray said. “After that, we have a seven-game stretch when we are playing teams all around us, maybe right above us or right below us, so these 11 games … we can do ourselves a lot of favours by playing well.”

The other factor this season is that the squad was 8-15-2-0 on Nov. 28 when former head coach Don MacGillivray was fired. They have been 11-5-3-0 since Murray took over behind the bench and are 7-4-1-0 since the Christmas break.

“It’s really good that we’ve been playing well here lately,” Ritchie said. “Obviously with the stretch we have left here we can make up some wins here and make a playoff push. This last month we’ve played really good.

“Hopefully it continues for the last couple of months.”

ICINGS: In the weekly report released Tuesday, Ben Thornton remains out week to week with an upper-body injury suffered in October … Edmonton Oil Kings forward Loick Daigle earned a two-game suspension for a hit on Brandon’s Eastyn Mannix on Sunday that resulted in a checking-from-behind major and game misconduct … If you want tickets for Connor Bedard’s final visit to Brandon on Feb. 24, you better hurry. There are only standing-room tickets left in what’s expected to be a complete sellout … The Wheat Kings signed 15-year-old defenceman Gradey Hope to a standard player agreement on Thursday. Hope, who is from Kelowna, B.C., was a fourth-round pick by the Wheat Kings in the 2022 WHL draft. He has 14 points in 24 games with the Okanagan Hockey Academy under-18 prep team this season.

» pbergson@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @PerryBergson

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