The Manitoba Midget AAA Hockey League has been extremely competitive this year, with plenty of parity on display by teams all across the province. That’s especially true near the top of the standings, where the Brandon ‘AAA’ Wheat Kings are in the conversation when talking about contenders.
Consider this – the Midget ‘AAA’ Wheat Kings entered their final week of action prior to the Christmas break in sixth place, but just four points out of second spot, occupied by Winnipeg Thrashers. Even better, with a record of 19-7-0-0, the Wheat Kings retain three games in hand on the Thrashers. In fact, the Wheaties hold games in hand on all the teams between them and the Thrashers, with the exception of Southwest Cougars, who are just a point ahead in the standings, yet still retain a game in hand.
Games in hand are all fine and well, but as Brandon head coach Chris Johnston will tell you, those are only good to you if you win them.
“Right now there’s six teams basically within two or three points, so the standings change day-to-day,” said Johnston. “We do have games in hand on some teams, and we feel we’re playing the right way, even though we lost a game to Eastman on the weekend that we didn’t feel we should have lost. But then there’s some games you shouldn’t win, so it all balances out.”
The 6-2 loss to fourth-place Eastman cooled the Wheat Kings off ever so slightly. They had been on a 7-1 heater prior to that. Johnston said the team is finally showing the sort of consistency he was looking for.
“We started the season 4-0 and then lost four in a row,” he said. “We were lethargic and didn’t have a good work ethic, so we changed a few things in our practice habits and how we approach games, and we’ve only lost two or three times since then.
“I like the way our team is playing,” he added. “We have had a few guys called up to the WHL and have missed a few guys here or there to suspension, so we haven’t iced a whole team that much. So hopefully moving forward we can stay healthy. If we do I think we have as good a chance as anyone to win at the end of the day.”
Johnston added there is so much parity in the league right now, he feels they can beat anyone and they can be beat by anyone. “It’s just the nature of the league this year,” he noted.
The final week sees the Wheat Kings play some intriguing matches. The third-place Yellowhead Chiefs – just two points up on Brandon – came to town Wednesday night. After taking 3-0 lead into the second period, the Wheat Kings allowed Yellowhead back into the game through the next 40 minutes. The teams were tied at four until 16:09 of the third period when Cole Jordan scored what became the game-winning goal.
The final two games before the league takes a mid-season pause sees the Wheat Kings play a home-and-home with the aforementioned Southwest Cougars – Friday in Souris and Saturday back in Brandon, 7:30 p.m. at the Brandon Sportsplex. Results for thes games were not available at the Westman Journal’s holiday press time.
“Those are two rival teams for us, so it’s a huge week for us, that’s for sure,” said Johnston. “These are just games, but we need to let our players know there’s a lot on the line for them. But if you win or lose, it’s not the end of the season, that’s for sure.
“But these are two rival teams, and this will be our first games against Southwest,” added the Wheaties’ head coach. “This is kind of our alumni weekend as well, where we invite past players to come back and watch some games, so it’s a fun weekend for everyone. And if you get some wins it makes it that much better.”
Johnston says these are important games for the Wheat Kings heading into the break, which will quickly give way to the stretch drive and the playoffs.
“Everyone in the league is probably thinking the same thing,” says Johnston. “The first half you get through October and November, and suddenly it’s Christmas time.
“But the second half goes by so quick you don’t even have time to blink, and then you’re in the playoffs where you play on or you’re done,” he added. “The break will be good for all of us, and we’re looking forward to the break, but we have business to take care of before that happens."