The Hitmen Report: Preparing For Battle

We here at FlamesNation pride ourselves on being a place that shines a spotlight on good hockey in our community, whether it’s the Flames or something new and exciting (and deserving of attention) like the Inferno. So to that end, we’re going to be adding in some coverage of the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen from time to time, particularly since it’d be nice to cover a team that makes the playoffs this season.

And it seems very likely that despite not having Jake Virtanen this season, and losing Travis Sanheim and Radel Fazleev for big chunks of their season, that the Hitmen will be playoff bound in mid-March. They’ve really relied on their 17 and 18-year-old players and as a result they’ve become a pretty good team that’s likely going to have most of their good players back next season.

THE WEEK THAT WAS

The Hitmen had a really light schedule this week, with a pair of weekend games.

On Friday they hosted the Prince Albert Raiders and beat then 4-1. Calgary’s Jake Bean and Prince Albert’s Simon Stransky made the trip back from Vancouver (and the Top Prospects Game), but the main story of the game was the secondary scoring for the Hitmen. For once, the Hitmen didn’t give up an early goal (a big step for them), and they scored three second period goals to take over the game. From there, it wasn’t really much of a contest. Tyler Mrkonjic had the game-winning goal, and also empty-netter and an assist, and the Hitmen also had multi-point efforts from Travis Sanheim, Pavel Karnaukhov and Jakob Stukel.

On Sunday they beat the Brandon Wheat Kings 6-3. The Wheat Kings were playing their third game in as many nights, in as many cities. They needed a Herculean effort on Saturday in Red Deer to beat the Rebels, and it seemed like they emptied the tank and didn’t have much left against Calgary. The Hitmen scored early (1:38 into the first) and had a 3-1 lead by the end of the first and a 5-2 lead after 40 minutes. The game got chippy late, as a frustrated Wheat Kings team that seemed to just want to go home got a bit scrappy. (Mid-way through the third period, the referees just started giving out 10-minute misconducts to calm things down.) Overager Jackson Houck had a three-point/two-goal performance, and the Hitmen also got multi-point games from Bean, Karnaukhov, Sanheim, Jordy Stallard and Matteo Gennaro.

It’s probably a good time to mention that the majority of the names discussed here are all 17 or 18 years old. Basically everybody except for Sanheim (who’s 19 and has a contract with the Flyers) and Houck (who’s 20 and aging out) will be back next season.

THE PLAYOFF RACE

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The Hitmen are 10 points back of Lethbridge for first place. Given that somehow, the Hurricanes are really good this year – nobody saw it coming – it seems unlikely that Calgary catches them. Similarly, the Hitmen are currently 13 points up on the two wild-card teams. Unless the wheels completely fall off, the Hitmen will finish second or third in the Central.

Long story short: the Hitmen and the Red Deer Rebels are on a collision course. All that’s left to decide over the final 22 games is which team gets home ice advantage in the eventual playoff series. The balance of the season will be spent with the Hitmen in Rocky-style training montages and trying to figure out the ideal battle plan for facing Brent Sutter’s team; the two clubs meet three times between now and the end of the season.

COMING UP

The Hitmen are off to British Columbia for a four-game road trip, facing Victoria, Vancouver, Kelowna and Kamloops. They’ll be back home on Friday, Feb. 12 for a potential playoff preview match-up against the Memorial Cup-hosting Rebels.