The Calgary Hitmen kicked off one of their most important stretches of the schedule with a resounding win against a provincial rival.
Entering Wednesday night’s game against the Edmonton Oil Kings at the Scotiabank Saddledome, the Hitmen sat six points back of a playoff spot and with an eight-game stretch against Central Division opponents ahead of them.
They started the important stretch on the right foot with a 6-1 thumping of the Oil Kings, powered by seven different players finding their way onto the score sheet.
Leading the way was the Hitmen’s hottest line combo in the wake of the Matteo Gennaro and Beck Malenstyn trade.
One of the key building blocks coming to Calgary in the trade was the 17-year-old centre Riley Stotts, who in his last 15 games before the trade had only recorded one assist. He was nearly a forgotten piece in the league despite earning a C level rating by NHL Central Scouting at the beginning of the season.
Since moving to Calgary, Stotts has flourished while sharing a line with Jake Kryski.
Now, six games since the trade, Stotts has eight points, while Kryski — who he has been matched up for four of those six games — has earned 12 points in his past nine games.
“We’re able to find each other on the ice and make some plays,” said Stotts about Kryski. “He handles the puck so well, he is a skilled forward, he’s good in the d-zone and gets the puck out quick. He finds players and makes good passes.”
In the second, Kryski took the long way around the net, surveying the ice, as Stotts meandered his way into the slot. Kryski hit him with a pass and Stotts rattled one in off the bar.
In the third, the two were at it once again during four-on-four. Kryski was in on a breakaway, but his tidy deke was foiled by the 16-year-old backup netminder Boston Bilous. Stotts was on the doorstep for the rebound with the help of Wyatt McLeod, who came crashing into Bilous, may have knocked the puck into the net.
Stotts never returned the favour to Krsyki, but the two teamed up in the third to put the Oil Kings to bed.
It wasn’t just Stotts that Kryski was setting up. As a gift to commemorate the special game, Kryski saucered a pass over to Andrei Grishakov, who was playing in his 100th career WHL game, for a tap in at the side of the net.
“When he first got traded here, we had to work him out a bit, but now it’s starting to work out there,” said Kryski. “We’re both players that like to move the puck, get it going and get it back. It’s nice to play with him and nice to have him on our line.”
Stotts and Kryski had their way on the ice, alongside winger Orca Wiesblatt, who finished as a plus-one. If there was ever a team to feel safe against with a one-goal lead entering the third period, it is the Oil Kings.
The Oil Kings entered the first trip to the ‘Dome with a paltry 1-13-1-0 record when trailing after one and an even worse 2-16-1-0 record when trailing after two.
The Hitmen were able to stake themselves to an early lead when the Teddy Bear hero, Vladislav Yeryomenko, scored on a short-handed rush.
The Belarusian was playing in his final game before departing for the World Junior tournament and drove the length of the ice with 20-year-old Conner Chaulk. Bilous failed to notice Conner McDonald sliding to take away the passing lane, so he cheated, leaving the post in anticipation of the pass. Yeryomenko spotted the gap and threaded the needle short-side on Bilous from an eerily similar spot as his unforgettable Teddy Bear goal. It was his second-career point while short handed.
Injuries and obligations to World Junior rosters forced the debut of two top-10 picks from the most recent Bantam Draft.
Jake Neighbours was in attendance at the 40th Mac’s AAA World Invitational Hockey Tournament press conference this morning and inserted into the Oil Kings roster for puck drop. With the Calgary Buffaloes of the Alberta Midget Hockey League, he has racked up 17 goals and 41 points in 20 games, and was recently named AMHL Player of the Month for November.
The Oil Kings selected Neighbours with the fourth overall pick last spring, as his Northern Alberta X-treme teammate Luke Prokop went three picks later to the Hitmen.
“It was a little nerve-racking to be out there, but the guys helped me ease into it and I feel good about my game now,” said the 15-year-old Prokop. “I was a little inexperienced out there in certain situations, but Jackson (van de Leest) talked a lot with me and helped let me know what I needed to do.”
Prokop got his feet wet with a harmless wrister in the first before really getting into the game in the second during the penalty kill. He also busted up an entry attempt by the Oil Kings leading scorer Trey Fix-Wolansky. With the game out of hand late in the third, assistant coach Trent Cassan loosened the reigns on Prokop and gave him more ice time.
“There were a couple times tonight the pressure was coming and he knew what to do with the puck to alleviate the pressure on the forwards,” said Hitmen Head Coach Dallas Ferguson. “He has good composure with the puck, is extremely coachable and was soaking up everything. We just want him to continue to develop as much as possible as long as he is here.”
How long Prokop is with the Hitmen is yet to be determined. He is almost certain to be with the team during their four-game, home-and-home series with the Kootenay Ice that stretches over the holiday break. Those four games would max him out at the allowed five, but the Hitmen are in talks with the league to keep him around longer if they aren’t able to dress a sixth defencemen with the two players at the World Juniors and regular Andrew Viggars still out four-to-six weeks with an upper-body injury.
The Hitmen were able to run Prokop out there for the extended time as they put four pucks into the net in the third period for the second time this season.
Adding to the tally in the final frame was Jakob Stukel, who slammed on the breaks in front of the net. Going from 100 to zero, Stukel pulled the emergency break in front of Bilous, made another quick move and lifted the puck into the net on the backhand to give him 14 goals on the season.
Then with time winding down late, Cael Zimmerman refused to quit on a shift in the Oil Kings zone. He poked the puck away from Davis Koch and then shortly stole the puck from McDonald, before moving in on net to jam in his third of the season, ending a 17-game goalless drought for the 16-year-old Englefeld, Sask. product.
“Seeing all the guys score really helps the team out. It was great to Zimm get a nice one there at the end,” said Stotts.
Having a sneaky-great night in net was 20-year-old Nick Schneider, who turned away 35 shots for his 10th win of the season, which gave him four seasons of double-digit wins.
His best stop of the evening came in the later stages of the second period, when Ethan Cap snuck in the back door and one-timed a pass from the Edmonton product David Kope. Schneider was one step ahead of the game and in position to deny him with the blocker.
Unfortunately, not a lot of people were around to see the first game this season in the Battle of Alberta. Coming off the heels of the Teddy Bear Toss game, the ‘Dome felt empty, as the announced crowd of 4,842 was the lowest recorded crowd since Sept. 27 of the 2000-2001 season, when 2,408 came to see the Hitmen lose 6-1 to the Lethbridge Hurricanes. Of note, there was a recorded crowd of zero Dec.10 of the 2006-07 season.
With the win, the Hitmen move four points back of the Ice for the final divisional playoff spot. The next two games before the break and the two immediately following the break will be huge, as all four come against the Ice.
The first of four games is set to begin Friday night at the Western Financial Place in Cranbrook. The Hitmen will play their final game before the Christmas break Sunday afternoon at the ‘Dome in a rematch. Puck drop is set for 2 p.m.