Morgan Klimchuk and the Regina Pats will look to weather the storm when Brett Kulak’s Vancouver Giants welcome them on Friday Night Hockey.
The Pats begin a two week road trip against B.C. Division foes starting against a young team that head coach Pat Conacher knows will be up for the challenge.
“We’ve been to Vancouver before and knowing (Giants head coach) Don Hay, you’re always in for a battle,” Conacher said. “We have to basically warn the kids about, ‘don’t look at the standings because you’re going to go into a hornet’s nest there.’”
The Giants are working out their early-season kinks with four wins in their last eight games. Vancouver’s defence got younger when it shipped out Czech defenceman David Musil to the defending champion Edmonton Oil Kings on Oct. 31.
Kulak’s workload got heavier with the trading of Musil. Now the Calgary Flames prospect is one of the few remaining “grey beards” on defence and will have his hands full with potential first-round NHL pick, Klimchuk.
“Brett has stabilized his game and he gives us really solid minutes and plays like the player that was drafted by the Flames with lots of potential,” Hay said.
Another notable trade made was the acquisition of gritty forward Kale Kessy from Medicine Hat. Kessy’s addition gave the Giants the physical punch they needed while also helping increase the work ethic of those around him.
The Giants stumbled out of the blocks as a team this season, which included star defenceman Kulak. He’s learning to play a more well-rounded game in Vancouver and to pick his spots.
“He’s just starting to be a little more consistent,” Hay notes. “He’s been trying probably to do a little too much with the puck. He’s got great skating ability and playmaking abilities and I think he’s just got to let those things happen and not force it and he’ll be just fine.”
The Pats’ infirmary is a long list of notable players, including perhaps their most skilled forward, Chandler Stephenson. Stephenson was off to a good start with 10 points in 12 games before a foot injury sidelined him in mid-October.
“He was our go-to guy as far as power play, penalty killing, playing against the other team’s top line — all those things,” Conacher said. “There was a big learning curve there for him and he was getting it. It’s unfortunate, I thought, when he went down at the time. He was definitely in our top three players at the time.”
The Pats’ “next man up” approach is putting more emphasis on Klimchuk, a sophomore forward listed by the NHL’s Central Scouting as one of seven WHL players as “A” skaters for the draft. Klimchuk is well on pace to set personal bests for goals and points with 21 points in 22 games so far this season.
“With Morgan, first of all it’s always his effort,” Conacher said. “It’s great he has a terrific skill set that goes along with that work ethic, but his hockey IQ is what separates the kid from a lot of people in the league. He just reads the play. He understands our systems and our schemes so well.”
Jackson Houck is assuming some of the scoring load after the graduation of Brendan Gallagher this summer. The draft-eligible forward is progressing rapidly in Hay’s system and is showing promise with 19 points in 19 games.
“He’s got really good hockey sense,” Hay said. “As he gets older, he’s just going to get better and better. He’s been put in real skilled positions and he’s a big guy with good skill and as he gets stronger, his skating ability will get stronger and he’ll be a real solid contributor for us.”
The Pats won three of their last four games coming into Friday’s tilt with goaltender Matt Hewitt being the main reason behind the team’s success. Hewitt allowed just three goals on 114 shots in three games, good for a near unbeatable .974 save percentage in the process.
“If it wasn’t for him, I’m sure the outcome would have been different,” Conacher said. “He’s a great competitor and he’s a great leader in our room.”
The Giants are finally finding the answer in goal. Sixteen-year-old rookie Payton Lee emerged as the team’s starter in recent weeks after injuries and performance opened the door for Lee to take charge.
“Payton Lee has stabilized our goaltending position, which is a very important position for us,” Hay said. “Once the goaltending starts to sort itself out, it really helped us move along here.”
It took a while for Marek Tvrdon to score his second goal, but once the Slovakian sniper got going, he found the net with more regularity.
“Marek is a real pure goal scorer,” Hay said. “Last year, he played with Gallagher who would go and get pucks and give him opportunities because of how Gallagher played, which was around the net area. Marek could finish off plays. He’s really starting to work a lot harder now and to get goals. We put him on a line with Anthony Ast and Kessy and he’s been around the net, he’s been in areas you need to go to score.”
The Giants announced on Thursday that Tvrdon’s season is now finished after undergoing a medical procedure to remove a blood clot in his left shoulder.
The Pats’ best hope for world junior representation may not get his chance to prove himself. Trent Ouellette was slated to play in Wednesday’s Subway Super Series game for Team WHL, but was replaced due to a knee injury.
Conacher shrugs off the key injuries as simply being a part of the game. He’s confident the players brought in to fill the gaps can help the team succeed, even if there is less familiarity amongst a group that had a fairly substantial turnover in roster from last season.
The Pats’ head coach can see similarities in the team he’s facing.
“One thing they do is they’re always a physical hockey team and they play hard for 60 minutes so you can never let your guard down and you have to match their work ethic or surpass it because every year they’re such a tough team to play,” he said. “They’re on the puck, they finish every check and they’re a very similar hockey team to us. They don’t have a whole bunch of big scorers there, but they do it by committee and they outwork other teams.”
The Pats may want to start the first of a six-game road trip on the right foot with a win while the Giants are keeping a close eye on the Western Conference standings. Since just two teams will miss the playoffs in the west, a win here keeps the Giants in contention during a big weekend.
“It is a really important weekend for us,” Hay said, noting his team beat a team they’re chasing in Prince George last weekend and will play another in Everett this weekend. “These games are critical that we put together some wins. We haven’t been able to do that all year and we’re looking at this weekend to be a start of that.”