The Calgary Hitmen caught the Medicine Hat Tigers by the tail this weekend.
Then they knocked them over the head, spun them around and tossed them behind them amid the tense Western Hockey League playoff race.
You are reading: Hitmen track down Tigers, shoot into seventh in WHL playoff race
Thanks to two pivotal wins over their Central Division rivals — one Saturday on the road, and one Sunday at Scotiabank Saddledome — the Hitmen have now clawed their way to lead the Tigers by one point in the fight for their post-season lives.
“Probably our most important (game of the season),” said Hitmen head coach Steve Hamilton after Sunday’s frantic 4-3 victory at the Dome. “You look at the math and how it’s laid out. We needed that.”
Sure did, given the circumstances.
With just three games left in their 68-game regular-season schedule, the Hitmen (29-28-5-3) have given themselves a cushion between them and the teams on the outside of the playoff picture.
Even better is that the two weekend wins, giving them 66 points, puts the 65-point Tigers (28-28-8-1) between the seventh-place Hitmen and those chasers — the Swift Current Broncos (29-32-1-3) on 62 points and the Brandon Wheat Kings (26-32-8-0) on 60.
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Suddenly, securing a playoff spot is just two wins away — or a combination of one win and a Broncos regulation-time loss.
“Nothing’s guaranteed for us right now still,” said Hitmen goaltender Brayden Peters, who made 27 stops in Sunday’s decision just a day after securing a 2-0 shutout with 23 saves over the host Tigers. “Right now, our goal is getting to the playoffs and putting ourselves in the best position possible. If that means we can get to seven, then great.”
If the Tigers were to finish in seventh, they would avoid meeting the Winnipeg ICE (54-9-1-0) — the third-ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League — in the opening round of the playoffs. Instead, they would get the Central Division-champ Red Deer Rebels (42-18-3-3) for the Eastern Conference quarter-final round.
“I wouldn’t say we’re necessarily concerned about the ICE,” continued Peters. “But obviously, the travel between 13 hours to Winnipeg or 45 minutes to an hour up to Red Deer is a bit of an influence on the first round. But for us, we’ve just got to focus on ourselves. That (top) end of the standings has already decided. Now it’s on us to figure out our spot.”
That was helped by a timely third-period rally Sunday.
Or more accurately, a three-goal barrage during a four-minute stretch by the home side.
The Hitmen trailed 3-1 heading into the final frame, despite Sean Tschigerl’s 25th goal of the season — on the power play — in the first stanza. They had a goal waived off late in the second period but came out buzzing in the third, finally scoring five minutes in with the man-advantage on Oliver Tulk’s redirection of Grayden Siepmann’s point shot. Just 10 seconds later, Brandon Whynott took Landon Hoilett’s pass off the sideboards and ripped one high by Tigers goaltender Beckett Langkow from the slot — and the game was tied. Then four minutes later, Carson Wetsch’s shot-pass from the right-wing boards on a rush eluded a slough of sticks on its way to the far side of the net, fooling Langkow for the game-winner.
“Told the guys it’s the most important period of the season — recognize that,” said Hamilton, when asked what was said in the room between periods. “It was plain and simple — it wasn’t hard. Like if we don’t get that one, there’s no chance for seven. So we needed to rally up — and we did.”
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But they still needed to bar the door in the late stages, with the Tigers scratching hard to tie the game.
Peters proved solid, however, especially in the final 90 seconds with the enemy owning the puck and firing shots when it could. And he got help from his teammates in blocking shots, including a Tulk game-saver with Peters out of position in traffic and the Tigers staring at a yawning net.
“That was sick,” Hamilton said. “And I would say Oliver Tulk is not known for his shot-blocking prowess. Good for him, because he stood in there and did it, because we needed it. That was a team-first thing.”
The entire third period was truly a team-first thing.
“It wasn’t a classic hockey game by any stretch,” added Hamilton. “I thought the first two periods we were kind of pulling the team bus around. And in the third period, we found a little bit of juice. Good on the guys. In that final couple of minutes, we blocked a million shots, which we needed to.
“So good on them.”
The Hitmen are on the road for their next two games, heading south to face the host Lethbridge Hurricanes on Wednesday (7 p.m.) before visiting the host Edmonton Oil Kings on Saturday (2 p.m.). They then complete their 68-game regular season schedule next Sunday against the Oil Kings for Fan Appreciation Day at the Dome (1 p.m.) … The Hitmen sported one red sock and one white sock while the Tigers donned one black sock and one white sock as part of their respective uniforms Sunday. The mismatched apparel is part of the WHL’s efforts to recognize World Down Syndrome Day on Tuesday … Wetsch (lower body, day-to-day) returned to the Hitmen lineup for all three weekend games … Billal Noori (upper body, week-to-week) and Jacob Wright (lower body, day-to-day) remained out of the lineup for the Hitmen.