The race to the post-season begins on Friday Night Hockey for the Regina Pats and Kootenay Ice.
The Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference playoff picture is a clouded mess with just two months remaining in the regular season. Spots four through nine are up for grabs with a mere seven points separating seven teams. The Ice and Pats realize now isn’t the time for an identity crisis.
"We really have to make sure that our details and our habits are in check from this week and we have to apply what we’ve done in practice this week to our games," explains Ice head coach Ryan McGill, who missed the majority of last month as an assistant coach on Brent Sutter’s staff on Canada’s world junior team. "We’ve been very inconsistent. From what I’ve seen since I’ve got back – I’ve seen three games – inside those three games, there’s things I didn’t like about our habits and we really tried to get back to those this week in practice."
"I’d say we’re kind of back to our old selves here," says Pats head coach Malcolm Cameron, whose team is 4-0-1-0 in their last five. "We’ve been a real resilient group this year where if we’ve had a bad game or a bad period, we find a way to get out of it very quickly and turn the game around quickly."
WHAT’S ON THE LINE?
The home-stretch towards the playoffs is right around the corner. With the trade deadline in the past and the frequency of games about to intensify – which means fewer practices – this is the time in the schedule where it’s imperative for teams to practice what they preach so it becomes second nature when the game-heavy schedule takes over.
It’s when the calendar turns to February, McGill says, that men are made of boys and playoff teams step away from non-playoff teams.
"Come February first, that’s where teams in this league traditionally separate themselves from the pack," he says. "There’s a big pack from four to nine, so we want to be in that pack that tries to separate and that’s where we focused on this week."
Due to their recent surge, the Pats are a point back of the Swift Current Broncos for first in the East Division. Their success was inconceivable to some earlier in the year when predictions predominantly had them missing the playoffs for the fifth out of six seasons, which has become the team’s rallying cry.
"The critics and the pundits that pick predictions at the beginning of the year didn’t have very flattering things to say about our hockey club and our players have used that every single day as motivation to prove people wrong," Cameron says. "(Winning the division) would mean a lot to the people here in Regina to show them that we’re committed to a winning program."
Sam Reinhart vs. Morgan Klimchuk
An intriguing mental battle will be underway whenever Reinhart and Klimchuk are on the ice together. Both are thinking-men’s hockey players whose offensive abilities often overshadow their defensive proficiency. Both are reliable 200-foot players who process the game quicker than their opponents, which will make for an interesting game within the game.
"(Reinhart’s) anticipation defensively is what separates him from everybody else," says McGill, who adds that Reinhart’s smart choices on the forecheck lead to turnovers and instant offence. "He puts himself, with his body position, so that when he gets the puck back, he’s in a position of offence."
Klimchuk’s defensive game was more a learned trait after coming into the league as an offensive player. He’s earned the respect of his coaching staff by applying himself and learning the defensive system to the point now where he supplements his offensive ability with reliable defensive play. Klimchuk, along with Chandler Stephenson, will match up directly against Reinhart’s line.
"It’s just a maturity thing with him," Cameron explains. "When you’re 16 and you’re coming in and you’ve always been a scorer, that’s really your primary focus. We never really used him on the penalty kill – we maybe didn’t have enough confidence in him as a defensive player in key situations. That changed last year when he became more of a 200-foot player and a reliable player and now he’s like an old pro."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Regina: C, Chandler Stephenson
Stephenson has already surpassed his career-high for points in a season with 55 in 42 games this year. Like Klimchuk, Stephenson’s game has improved by leaps and bounds to the point now where Cameron is confident rolling him over the boards throughout the game.
"They’ve kind of been two peas in a pod for us for a couple of years," Cameron says. "(Stephenson’s) a big, strong kid who can skate. He’s a horse, plays in all situations for us, and he may be our most physically-gifted player on our hockey team. He’s just a guy that’s become an ultimate Regina Pat, just completely committed to a game plan and whatever it takes to win for our team and putting individual stuff aside."
Kootenay: LW, Tim Bozon
The Ice made the first big splash of the season when they acquired the Montreal Canadiens prospect from the Kamloops Blazers in October. His point production may be down after playing on one of junior hockey’s most productive lines the past two seasons, but his impact in Kootenay can be felt from the moment puck drops.
"When somebody has the puck, and he gets flying down the wall and he wants that puck, I know he’s ready to roll," McGill says. "His game is all about speed and shooting the puck off the wing with that speed. When he does that, I know he’s playing and if he does it early, he’s ready to roll."