A Brandon Wheat Kings team built to win in the 2020-21 Western Hockey League season did just that late Sunday, earning the East Division championship by riding Lynden McCallum’s four-goal game to a 5-1 victory over the Regina Pats in Western Hockey League action at Regina’s Brandt Centre.
Despite the loss of their two European players and overagers Luka Burzan and Cole Reinhardt, Brandon’s record of 18-3-2-0 clinched the East Division crown for the 14th time by putting them out of reach of their archrival, the Winnipeg Ice. The league announced last week it won’t hold normal playoffs, instead crowning four division winners.
The Wheat Kings finish up their condensed 24-game schedule on Wednesday when they meet the Saskatoon Blades.
"That’s what we came here to do right from training camp," McCallum said of the title. "We said let’s be the best team here. Whatever they let us play for, we want to try to win it. Before the game, I was so proud of the guys. Everyone was focused. We had some rocky moments there during the game but we stuck with it and kept our composure, and things ended up working out."
Ridly Greig added a short-handed goal for Brandon (18-3-2-0), with Braden Schneider and Ben McCartney both earning four assists. Rookie Tanner Howe replied for Regina (9-11-2-1).
Don MacGillivray, who took over as Brandon’s head coach following the departure of Dave Lowry, said his team talked about their goals when they arrived in the hub. After six games, his players knew they were in contention.
"Once we got through that first segment, we understood that we had a chance to win," MacGillivray said. "I’m real proud of the group, the way they’ve worked. We put some bad games behind us, we put some good games behind us. We prepared ourselves on a daily basis like we did today and didn’t talk about the end result. The end result is we ended up with the best record in the hub."
In characteristic fashion for this year’s club, they were able to build off some early adversity on Sunday.
Bruising Wheat Kings forward Reid Perepeluk took a pair of minor penalties in the first eight minutes, and Brandon’s potent penalty killers struck on the second one.
Following a faceoff win, three Wheat Kings raced up the ice, with Greig the beneficiary of a pass from McCartney that allowed him to tap in his fourth short-handed goal of the season.
The Pats squared the game three minutes into the middle frame when Howe walked into the slot and sent a shot over the shoulder of Brandon goalie Ethan Kruger for his first WHL goal.
In an increasingly feisty game, the penalties began to mount, with Brandon killing three in an eight-minute span.
"Regina, the way they play is not unlike (the Prince Albert Raiders)," MacGillivray said. "It doesn’t matter whether they’re good or bad or we’re good or bad, the games are always gritty, intense games. Regina played hard tonight. They made us work for that win tonight. I was nervous at times because we weren’t on top of our game. We turned a lot of pucks over in the middle of the ice."
The wheels fell off for Regina when they sent Brandon to four consecutive power plays late in the second period and early in the third period, and McCallum sniped all four times in less than three minutes.
McCallum scored what proved to be the winning goal 18 minutes 10 seconds into the middle frame when he broke in down the wing, went hard to the net and slammed the puck by Regina goalie Matthew Kieper to restore the lead. To make matters worse for the Pats, Tom Cadieux was assessed a holding penalty on the play, and McCallum scored his second goal 31 seconds later when the puck caromed off the boards to him at the side of the net.
"They were obviously important," McCallum said. "They were pressing but we’ve been in those situations before where we had a little lull in the game. Our team is good at keeping our composure. We just stuck with it and we knew it would come."
The tough times continued for Regina when Carter Chorney took a high sticking double minor six seconds into the third period, and in the next 62 seconds, McCallum put two more goals in.
McCallum, who had six goals on the weekend and now leads the league with 19 markers, said anything can happen on this year’s Brandon team.
"When you’re on the ice with that good of players, that’s the kind of stuff that can happen," McCallum said. "We have some great players on this team and guys make plays."
Brandon’s Brett Hyland appeared to have scored another power-play goal on a wrap-around that Kieper knocked into the net, but a quick whistle led to a ruling of no goal.
McCartney, who leads the Wheat Kings with 38 points in 23 games, said the Pats certainly didn’t make it easy.
"They’re a really good hockey club," he said. "They bring the same game every time, it’s always hard. They make it really challenging and I have to give them props. They work hard, and never take it off. Tonight, they worked and gave us a run for our money."
Kruger made 34 saves for the Wheat Kings, with Kieper stopping 25 shots for the Pats. Brandon went 4-for-5 on the power play, with Regina missing on six chances.
Regina head coach Dave Struch said special teams ultimately doomed his club.
"(It came down to) special teams — theirs were good, ours weren’t," Struch told the Regina Leader-Post’s Greg Harder. "Our power play was really bad tonight … the worst it has been all year, and our penalty kill wasn’t good. Their penalty kill was really, really good and their power play was really good. As much as we thought we played good five on five, the third period we played scared."
ICINGS: Brandon’s healthy scratches were D Jacob Hoffrogge, D Vincent Iorio and F Rylen Roersma … Regina won the faceoff battle 36-30 … McCallum led all skaters with seven shots on net … Because of all the special teams goals, nobody on either team had a plus-minus of more than +1 or less than -1.
» Twitter: @PerryBergson