A pair of Western Hockey League heavyweights will collide tonight.
Pegged by many, if not all, pundits as runaway favourites this season, the Canadian Hockey League’s top-ranked Brandon Wheat Kings host the fourth-ranked Calgary Hitmen at Westman Communications Group Place at 6:30 p.m. MT.
Yet to drop a decision in both regular season and pre-season action, the Hitmen will be gunning for the Wheat Kings, who ousted them in five games in last year’s Eastern Conference Final.
“I think anytime we play Brandon there’s going to be a battle,” said Hitmen defenceman Travis Sanheim. “As much as we want to get them back for what happened last year, we have to try to forget about it and move on because it’s a new season. But saying that, anytime you come up against a top team like they are, you have to make sure you’re ready to go and firing on all cylinders.”
The Wheaties bagged a league-best 340 goals into opposing team’s nets during the 2014-15 campaign.
And they certainly possess the firepower to lead the circuit again this season.
With returning forwards Rihards Bukarts, Jayce Hawryluk, Reid Duke and the highly-talented rearguard Ivan Provorov back in the fold, Brandon still boasts a deadly attack.
“They have a lot of skill on that team,” Sanheim said. “It’s going to be a game where we’ll really have to focus on what we’re doing defensively, and make sure we’re not making too many mistakes.”
“We’ll just have to play a simple road game and get pucks deep,” echoed veteran Hitmen forward Chase Lang. “There won’t be anything pretty about it. We’ll just need to get pucks towards the net and get bodies in front. If we can stick to our game plan then everything should work out in our favour.”
Following the much-anticipated tilt in Brandon, the Hitmen will travel to Moose Jaw for a contest with the Warriors on Saturday, before wrapping up their three-game-in-three-day road trip with a Sunday matinee against the Regina Pats.
“The game against Brandon is not only going to be a big test for us, but to have three games in three days this early in the season is also a big hurdle, especially for our younger guys that have never experienced anything like this before,” said Sanheim.
First things first – beat the Wheaties.
“We’re already preparing for them,” said Hitmen goaltender Brendan Burke, following last Saturday’s 1-0 shutout win over the Kootenay ICE. “That’s a top-end team, but we’ll be ready.”
After sweeping aside Central Division rival Kootenay in last weekend’s home-and-home series, the Hitmen (2-0) actually own a better record than the top-ranked Wheat City crew (1-0-0-1).
Hitmen defenceman Loch Morrison notched the game’s lone tally and netminder Burke made 21 saves to lift the Hitmen to a home opening 1-0 shutout win over the ICE Saturday night at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
The victory came on the heels of a 4-2 season-opening victory over Kootenay last Friday in Cranbrook.
Brandon, meanwhile, was forced to start the season by settling for a home-and-home series split with the Swift Current Broncos.
Despite firing 54 shots on Broncos goaltender Landon Bow, the Wheaties dropped a 2-1 shootout decision to Swift Current last Friday on home ice. It was their first home opener loss since 1999.
The 2015 WHL finalists would not be denied on the road, though, as they returned the favour by spoiling Swift Current’s home opener on Saturday with a 4-1 win at Credit Union iPlex.
Good news for the Hitmen – and the entire WHL for that matter – is that high-scoring Brandon centre Tim McGauley will not be in the lineup. The 20-year-old, who led all Wheaties with 42 goals, including a team-high three shorthanded markers, 105 points and a plus-43 rating last season, is sidelined due to an upper body injury. The dangerous forward, who has been listed as week-to-week, fell awkwardly following a face-off in the late stages of the third period in his team’s home opener last Friday against the Broncos.
Brandon will, however, have a new face in its lineup as the team acquired 1997-born left wing Garrett Armour from the Saskatoon Blades late Wednesday night in exchange for a conditional 10th round pick in 2017. Armour had one goal and five assists in 45 games last season in a Blades uniform.
2014-15 Season Series: Brandon won 3-1.
Game Broadcasts: Sportsnet 960 The Fan, WHL Live
Hitmen to Watch:
The Sanheim twins – It will be a homecoming of sorts for the Elkhorn, Manitoba brothers. The dependable rearguard Travis led all WHL defenceman with 65 points last season. A first-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers, Travis suited up for NHL pre-season action in late September where he earned 18:56 of ice time in a Flyers 5-3 win over the New York Rangers. Returning to the Hitmen in time for the season opener, the 6’4” 199-pound blueliner notched a power play marker in his first game back against Kootenay last Friday. Brother Taylor, a Hitmen sparkplug on the wing, also connected for a power play tally that same game.
G Brendan Burke – The 20-year-old goaltender, who has received the nod for both regular season games, has been stellar for the Hitmen since returning from Anaheim Ducks camp. The Scottsdale, Arizona native has not only turned aside 43 of 45 shots blasted his way but earned his 10th career shutout in Saturday’s home opener at the Saddledome. The Hitmen will need Burke, who should see plenty more rubber against Brandon than he did against Kootenay, to continue his stingy play as the Wheat Kings boast one of the most lethal offences in the entire WHL.
C Jordy Stallard – The sophomore centre will be returning to his hometown in front of a plethora of family and friends. Teaming up with linemates Carsen Twarynski and veteran Elliott Peterson, the Sandpaper Line will likely be the difference between escaping Brandon with a win or loss. The Kootenay ICE had no answer for the relentless and punishing forecheck this trio brings to the ice each and every shift. They set the tone against the ICE in the season-opening win, and it will be vital they repeat that performance in Brandon.
Wheat Kings to Watch:
LW Rihards Bukarts – The diminutive Latvian has amassed 128 points in 127 games over his first two WHL seasons. He had a goal, an assist, and finished plus-three in his first outing of the season against the Broncos on Saturday. Selected seventh overall by Brandon in the 2013 CHL Import Draft, Bukarts led all WHL rookies in scoring with 28 goals in 2013-14. The slick stickhandling winger attended Edmonton Oilers camp as an (surprisingly) undrafted invite this year.
D Ivan Provorov – The offensively-skilled defenceman’s 61-point rookie season was fourth best among league blueliners in 2014-15. The Philadelphia Flyers selected the superb puck carrier seventh overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He was also a member of the silver medal-winning Russian team that fell 5-4 to Canada in the gold medal game at the World Junior Championships. When the puck is on the Russian’s stick, positive things for the Wheat Kings are bound to happen.
RW Reid Duke – The 19-year-old Calgary native is fresh from his most productive WHL season after the Wheaties acquired his rights from the Lethbridge Hurricanes early last season. After putting together his first 20-goal campaign, the veteran winger, a 2014 sixth-round pick of the Minnesota Wild, should reach the 30-goal plateau this season.
C Jayce Hawryluk – A second-round (32nd overall) pick of the Florida Panthers in 2014, the 19-year-old missed out on Brandon’s home opener due to attending NHL camp in Miami, but his flight to Regina landed in time for him to contribute to his team’s first win of the season in Swift Current. A 5’10” 194-pound centre, Hawryluk racked up 30 goals and 65 points in 54 games last season. Expect 40-plus goals from the Roblin, Manitoba native this season.