Team is back in the dance after one-year hiatus

After last season’s 45-point, last–in-the-league finish, the Calgary Hitmen have secured the third seed in the Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference playoffs with 91 points and more than doubled what they finished with last season.

The Hitmen are playing the sixth-seeded Brandon Wheat Kings — a team the Hitmen beat three out of four games during the regular season.

After losing 6-2 in the series opener on Thursday night, the Hitmen will play at home tonight, before heading to Brandon, Manitoba for three straight games. If needed, they will then return to Calgary for the final two contests.

It was one of the closest playoff races in recent WHL history. Six of eight teams were all within one point of another or tied, leaving every eastern conference matchup to be decided on the last night of the regular season.

Mike Williamson, head coach of the Calgary Hitmen, said that it’s the closest finish he has ever seen.

“A couple series [were] up in the air, a couple have had a crazy finish, but never on the last night with no match-ups,” Williamson said. “Everyone’s in the same boat though so there’s no advantage or disadvantage.”

After winning five of their last six regular season games, the Hitmen pulled ahead of the Medicine Hat Tigers by one point.

Greg Chase – a rookie with six goals and 22 assists during the season – was pulled up to the team’s top line for the last regular season game and said that it came as a huge relief.

“We were in fourth for a long time,” Chase said. “So getting that third place and a greater chance of keeping home ice for the second round is pretty big for us.”

Hitmen rebound from a slump season to become top contenders in Eastern Conference and celebrates final game with 3-0 win over division rivals, the Kootenay Ice.
Photo by: Casey Magnus

Riding a two-game win streak into the playoffs, along with a 27-10-0 record since the Christmas break, Chase feels that the Hitmen can make a serious push in the offseason.

“We have confidence in all four lines, all six D-men, and both our goalies,” Chase said. “We’ve had a few good games and the guys are rolling right now.”

Williamson said that after the way they’ve played since the Christmas break, his players should be confident but also ready for some hard upcoming playoff battles.

The coach added: “The guys have a lot of reason to be proud — the way they’ve played in the second half [of the season] and where we’ve got to compared to where we were a year ago.

“It doesn’t matter who we play — we know we’re going to face a good team. I feel confident and comfortable, but we’re going to have to be at our best.”

Chris Driedger, the starting goalie for last night’s home opener, recorded three shutouts and 24 wins this season.

Driedger said he looks forward to having the home ice advantage against Brandon.

“It’s great when the Saddledome gets going,” Driedger said. “It’s a great place to play and it’s huge for us to be successful.”

“We’ve had success against Brandon,” Driedger added. “They’ve beaten us and we’ve beaten them. I think if we just bear down we will be successful.”

The puck drops at the Scotiabank Saddledome at 7 p.m. tonight.

cmagnus@cjournal.ca