Wheat Kings enter must-win territory


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The Brandon Wheat Kings enter the second last weekend of the Western Hockey League season with their playoff hopes in critical condition.

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The Brandon Wheat Kings enter the second last weekend of the Western Hockey League season with their playoff hopes in critical condition.

The Wheat Kings (26-30-8-0), who lost 6-3 to the Regina Pats on Wednesday, are two points out of the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with four games remaining.

They host the Prince Albert Raiders (26-34-3-0) tonight at Westoba Place, with a visit to Saskatoon’s SaskTel Centre on Saturday. The Wheat Kings then host the Winnipeg Ice next Friday and visit Wayne Fleming Arena on Saturday to complete their 68-game schedule.

Brandon head coach and general manager Marty Murray said his team is in must-win territory.

“It’s been like that for a while,” Murray said. “We’ve talked about winning four of the last five and starting (on Wednesday in Regina) didn’t help us. We’re in that win-right-now mindset.”

The Calgary Hitmen (27-27-5-3) moved two points up on Brandon into eighth spot with a 7-1 pummelling of the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Wednesday, and still have six games remaining. The Swift Current Broncos are tied with the Wheat Kings but have five games remaining.

“You have to have that do-or-die mindset because it’s the time of year when you technically can’t lose any games,” defenceman Luke Shipley said. “You have to adapt the mindset of do-or-die.”

Goaltender Carson Bjarnason agreed.

“It’s that point in the season where you’re fighting for that last playoff spot,” Bjarnason said. “Every game is your last game. You have to treat it like that and move forward thinking that way.”

Since Swift Current and especially Calgary have games in hand on Brandon, the Wheat Kings will need a little bit of help. Calgary has two games left against the Lethbridge Hurricanes, Medicine Hat Tigers and Edmonton Oil Kings, while Swift Current faces the Red Deer Rebels twice, Medicine Hat twice and Edmonton once.

Bjarnason said he elects not to follow what’s going on elsewhere.

“It works for me specifically just to play,” Bjarnason said. “Lately I’ve been looking at the standings and I think I’m thinking too much instead of just playing. I try to focus one puck at a time going forward.”

Shipley said he likes that approach, but admits he can’t resist taking a peek.

“I think it’s always in the back of your mind but I’m just trying to stay present and just stay focused on what our task is at hand,” Shipley said. “But you’re always looking to see what other teams are up to because our race is so tight.”

Brandon has met Prince Albert five times this season, a 4-3 Wheat Kings win in Prince Albert on March 7, a 4-3 Raiders overtime win in Brandon on Feb, 20, a 6-2 Raiders win in Prince Albert on Jan. 7, a 4-3 Wheat Kings win in Prince Albert on Dec. 7 and a 5-4 Wheat Kings victory in Brandon on Dec. 2.

“They’re a hard-working team,” Murray said. “If you look at the top scorers, they don’t have anybody in the top 30 or 40 but they’re pretty balanced throughout their lineup and they work hard. They have a lot of young guys trying to earn ice time and earn responsibility and they’ve been a pretty good team in the second half.”

While Shipley didn’t arrive in Brandon until late November after a trade with the Victoria Royals, he’s been in the lineup for all five games against the Raiders.

“They’re a fast team and they forecheck and play physical,” Shipley said. “We have to adapt to the same and get on their D and forecheck and get the puck back, and I think we’ll have a good time.”

Another challenge lies on Saturday when Brandon visits Saskatoon, where they’ve lost both games this season, 5-4 in overtime on Dec. 6 and 4-2 on Feb. 5. The Blades have also won all three games in Brandon.

To make the challenge even steeper, Brandon won’t be able to spend the night before in the Bridge City because it’ll be at home hosting Prince Albert.

“That’s going to be a challenge for sure, especially with the back-to-back and travel on the day of,” Murray said. “We’re a funny group. Sometimes those things bring out the best in us. We’ll worry about P.A. (today) and then turn the page to Saskatoon on Saturday.”

Shipley is well aware of the challenges posed by the Blades (45-14-4-1), who have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. They’ve scored the fifth most goals in the league, 243, while allowing the second fewest, 160.

“Saskatoon is a fast team and they like to stretch and get their forwards to win foot races,” Shipley said. “They’re a good team and it’s going to be a challenge for us but I think we’re up to the task.”

The Wheat Kings have won just four of their last 10 games — and only five other teams have earned fewer points at home this season than their 29 — but they did play well last week in a 2-0 victory over Medicine Hat and a 10-2 skewering of Edmonton.

Bjarnason said they can learn from those outings.

“We had good starts,” Bjarnason said. “We played at least a 50-minute game. At this point of the season, you can’t get away with pushing the last 10 minutes in the third. You have to start and you have to finish properly.”

ICINGS: The Broncos lost Caleb Wyrostok for two games as a repeat offender who took a charging major and game misconduct on Sunday against the Moose Jaw Warriors.

» pbergson@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @PerryBergson

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