For the second straight weekend the Calgary Hitmen are set to do battle with a top-notch opponent.
Not once, but twice.
The Hitmen (4-1) and Central Division rival Red Deer Rebels (4-1) begin a home-and-home series tonight at the Scotiabank Saddledome at 7 p.m.
And, if you’re one to put any value in rankings, it ought to be a dandy between two Western Hockey League juggernauts.
Both Calgary and Red Deer were recognized in the latest BMO Canadian Hockey League Top 10 Rankings, with the Hitmen rising one spot to third (tops in the WHL) and the Rebels remaining ninth.
The Hitmen returned home this week from a rather successful three-game-in-three-day Eastern road trip that saw them collect a 3-2 win over the Brandon Wheat Kings, fall 6-3 to the Moose Jaw Warriors and then, in front of an impressive debut performance by rookie goaltender Lasse Petersen, earned a convincing 3-0 victory over the Regina Pats.
“Last weekend was a big one for us from a number of standpoints, but it continues into this weekend against another very good team,” Hitmen head coach Mark French said. “We faced some big challenges last weekend, and now we look ahead at another one.”
And what a challenge it will be.
As 2016 Memorial Cup hosts, the Rebels are amped and poised to be one of the teams to beat this season.
Red Deer swept aside the Edmonton Oil Kings in a season-opening home-and-home series, downed Swift Current with ease 5-1, and then made the defending champion Kelowna Rockets appear ordinary by filling the net for a 7-4 victory.
They will, however, be looking for a return to the win column after dropping a 5-2 decision to the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Tuesday.
“It’s still early enough in the season to be more focused on our own game rather than be worried too much about our opponents,” French said. “But we have been watching a lot of video on them this week, and they’re certainly going to be a formidable opponent to play against. This weekend should give us a gage on our own system and where improvements need to happen.”
At the top of Coach French’s to-do list? Avoid the penalty box as much as possible.
The Hitmen have racked up an Eastern Conference-leading 102 penalty minutes over their first five games – with 41 of those minutes serving victory on a silver platter to Moose Jaw last Saturday.
With Red Deer owning one of the more effective power plays in the league – firing at a 27.6 per cent clip – the Hitmen would be wise to play a more disciplined game.
“We don’t want to give anything away for free,” French said. “When you are undisciplined and take the amount of penalties we did last weekend, you’re just giving your opponent every opportunity to beat you.”
With Red Deer boasting a plethora of offensive weapons capable of posting gaudy numbers in Michael Spacek, Ivan Nikolishin and Presten Kopeck, among others, the Hitmen defensive core will need to be on high alert.
“We just need to keep things simple,” said Hitmen veteran defenceman Colby Harmsworth, on keeping Red Deer’s potent offence at bay. “Red Deer is, and always has been, a hard-working team. It’s a great rivalry and we expect it to be a big test for us.”
“Anytime you play against a high-calibre team that already has a spot in the Memorial Cup, I think it only motivates and fuels you,” added stalwart Hitmen defenceman and team-leading scorer Travis Sanheim. “I expect this weekend to bring out the best in us.”
Tickets for tonight’s game are available by visiting the Scotiabank Saddledome box office or online at Ticketmaster.ca
This n’ That: The Hitmen have reassigned forward Lucas Cullen to the Okanagan Rockets of the BC Major Midget League.
2014-15 Season Series: Red Deer won 4-3
Game Broadcasts: Shaw TV, Sportsnet 960 The Fan, WHL Live
Hitmen to Watch:
C Beck Malenstyn – A first-round, 18th overall, pick of the Hitmen at the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft, Malenstyn will be looking to breakout during his sophomore season. The 6’2” 190-pound forward, along with Hitmen defenceman Jake Bean, helped Canada capture the U18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup for the eighth consecutive time in August. Also like Bean, Malenstyn has been recognized on Central Scouting’s preliminary “Players to Watch” list. Yet to light the lamp this season, the 17-year-old has contributed two helpers in five games. Expect the Delta, B.C. native to bury his first goal of the season this weekend against the Rebels.
C Jordy Stallard – The 6’2” 187-pound centre is likely to make a return to the ice tonight after missing the last two games due to an upper body injury he suffered in his hometown of Brandon. The 18-year-old has collected two assists in three games this season. More than just about stats, though, Stallard brings an intelligent two-way game to the Hitmen lineup while centering the ruthless forechecking duo of Carsen Twarynski and Elliott Peterson. The trio was arguably Calgary’s best line in the first two games of the season against Kootenay. Twarynski, who was also injured in Brandon after finding himself on the wrong end of a Rihards Bukarts check-from-behind, could also return at some point this weekend.
Rookie Goalies – With starter Brendan Burke still nursing a lower body injury he sustained in Brandon, rookie goaltenders Kyle Dumba and Lasse Petersen are apt to split this weekend’s games. When Burke departed the Brandon tilt, Dumba made an admirable relief appearance and held off a late game push by the Wheaties to collect his first win of the season. The following night in Moose Jaw, however, the 17-year-old allowed six goals on 31 shots, albeit four of those markers against came while his team was shorthanded. Petersen, on the other hand, earned a shutout in his WHL debut in Regina on Sunday. Although the rookie wasn’t overly tested – facing 19 shots – he was solid when called upon.
Rebels to Watch:
C Michael Spacek – The Rebels received a steal of a deal when they plucked the 18-year-old native of Pardubice, Czech Republic with the 47th overall pick in the 2015 CHL Import Draft. A 5’11” 185-pound rookie centre, Spacek has taken the WHL by storm, notching five goals, and as many assists, for a team-leading 10 points in his first five games. The Winnipeg Jets thought highly enough of the winger to select him with their fourth-round (108th overall) pick at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. As a 14-year-old, he not only dressed but scored four goals in seven games with the HC Pardubice U18 team. He also represented Czech Republic at the 2015 World Junior Championships, and should play a bigger role at this year’s installment in Helsinki.
LW Ivan Nikolishin – The son of former NHLer Andrei Nikolishin amassed 121 points over two seasons with the Everett Silvertips before the Rebels acquired his rights in May for a 2015 third round WHL Bantam Draft pick (defenceman Ian Walker) and a conditional fourth round selection in 2017. Though small in stature, the 5’9” 165-pound left wing can skate and handle the puck with the best of them. Always a threat in the offensive zone, the 19-year-old has recorded three goals and eight points in five games this season.
D Haydn Fleury – One of the five final cuts made by the Carolina Hurricanes, the seventh overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft (only Calder Trophy winner Aaron Ekblad was a higher selected defenceman), was returned to Red Deer on Monday. Ironically, the Rebels suffered their first setback of the season with the 19-year-old defenceman in the lineup. The 6’3” 207-pound dependable rearguard will anchor a sturdy Rebels blueline this season.