After a solid performance in their final two games of 2009, the Huskies head into their holiday break riding a high.
The Huskies battled hard, and played arguably their best game of the season, in a 4-1 loss in Whitecourt on Saturday night (Dec. 19th). They then moved on to Slave Lake on Sunday, where they posted a 7-4 win, despite a depleted roster, some tired legs, and various other obstacles.
With no games scheduled until January 9th in Sexsmith, the Huskies can feel good about snapping a mid-season slump that saw them lose four out of six games, between Nov. 22nd and Dec. 11th. After winning two of three heading into the break, the pups remain eight points clear of second-place Grande Prairie, with two more games played (see the league standings here).
And, while the coaching staff had been very upset with the way the Huskies had been playing, even during a six-game winning streak, the coaches seem to be more satisfied with things now. After an underwhelming 2-1 win in Dawson Creek on Nov. 18th, Coach Bob Kalb lamented “We’ve got a good record right now, but we’re not a very good hockey club – we seem to be really struggling.” But, during the second intermission of the game in Slave Lake on Dec. 20th, Kalb said “We are playing better, definitely, the last two or three games. We just have to go home and have a good rest now, and get ready for the second half.”
As one might have predicted before the season, the Huskies have been an intimidating offensive team this season, scoring 112 goals in 23 games so far (an average of 4.9 goals per game). Cody Kalb continues to lead the team offensively, with 18 goals and 27 assists (for 45 points) in 22 games played. Kalb sits one point back of Wolverine Kjell Reid for the league scoring lead. Rookie Robbie Sidhu has cemented his spot on the top line, with 36 points in 23 games (good for 5th in league scoring). Dan Pappin rounds out the top unit, with 26 points. Because of his welding work, Pappin wasn’t expected to play much this year, but he has missed only 6 games so far. On the second line, Kole Norris finally found the back of the net in Beaverlodge, before leaving for his Christmas holiday, while Cody Hildebrand was the best Husky on the ice most nights in early December.
But, Fort St. John’s defence remains a question mark. Payden Wongstedt has shown a new-found maturity since being awarded the captain’s ‘C’, and continues to log 35-40 minutes per game, as the Huskies most important player. But, after Wongstedt, the defensive depth drops quickly. The absence of Ryan Stickel for a few games before the holidays helped expose the Husky blue-line, and Coach Kalb admits he’d like to add another defenceman or two before the January 10th deadline.
Goaltending has also been a pleasant surprise for the Huskies, with both rookie goalies holding their own thus far. Like last year, Coach Kalb seems content to let the two play as equal number ones until later on in the season, giving them both an opportunity to improve their game, and prove their worth. Garrett Muir has posted 8 wins in 12 appearances, with a goals-against-average of 2.85. Ty Gullickson’s numbers aren’t quite as good, with 7 wins and a 4.24 GAA, though he has played a few more tough games than Muir. The netminders themselves seem comfortable with the shared duties, and supportive of each other, meaning goaltending is not a concern for the Huskies going ahead. That said, one of the two will need to find a way to match Ryan Demharter’s play if the Huskies want to win the league championship.
There is no secret around the Huskies dressing room that this team is setting its sights on Whitecourt. Barring a playoff collapse from the Wolverines, the Huskies know they will need to find a way to beat the defending champs if they want a birth at Provincials in Peace River this spring. Coach Kalb concedes his new forecheck system is designed for Whitecourt, as a way to try to contain the Wolverines speedy breakout. “It’s just a better system to play against Whitecourt, and they were struggling with it when we were doing it [on Saturday night].” The Huskies coaches and players alike seem to be content with the new forecheck, and the coaches hope it will help cause more turnovers and also promote team defence.
After sticking with the Wolverines for two periods on Dec. 19th, the Huskies have proven to themselves and to the Wolverines that they are capable of playing at Whitecourt’s level. Even Whitecourt Assistant Coach Murray Summers conceded after the game that the Wolverines had been tested. “I thought it was certainly the best game of the season for our team” Summers said to the Whitecourt Star.
The Huskies don’t get their next shot at the undefeated Wolverines until the final weekend of the season, when they play two games at the North Peace Arena (Feb. 13th and 14th). Of their 12 remaining games, the Huskies play the last-place Slave Lake Wolves four times, along with two games against each Peace River and Dawson Creek. All in all, there’s no reason to think the Huskies won’t be able to clinch second place overall, and head into the playoffs on a collision course with a third straight playoff date with Whitecourt.
It should be an exciting second half.