Saturday, 26 November 2016

Tigers roar again in the WHL

Medicine Hat returns to elite status after one rebuild year

Zach Fischer celebrates scoring a goal for the Tigers.
    It didn’t take the Medicine Hat Tigers long to start looking like themselves again, which means they alone are worth the price of admission on any of their Western Hockey League game nights.
    Last year, the Tigers saw their run of making the WHL playoffs for 13 consecutive years come to an end. Posting a 30-37-3-2 record in the regular season, the Tigers faced the Edmonton Oil Kings in a standings tiebreaking game for the final playoff berth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference and came away on the wrong end of a 6-4 final.
    After just over a third into the current campaign, the Tigers are back to their high speed and high skill form.
    On Saturday night at the SaskTel Centre, the orange and black systematically dismantled the host Saskatoon Blades 8-2 before 3,802 stunned spectators. The win was Medicine Hat’s ninth straight victory and has vaulted the Tigers to the top of the overall WHL standings with a 20-5-1 mark.
Max Gerlach snipes his hat trick goal for the Tigers.
    The Everett Silvertips (18-3-4) trail the Tigers by a point for first overall with a game in hand.
Veteran Tigers head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston has no complaints about where his team is at.
    “It has been great,” said Clouston. “I think our older guys, our leaders are doing a terrific job of making sure the room is ready every night.
    “We’ve got lots of guys contributing. We’ve had some guys really step up and have breakout years. (Mark) Rassell and (Zach) Fischer are good players and they just really had breakout seasons.
    “James Hamblin who was 16-years-old last year, he has taken big strides. We are getting contributions from our imports. I think those two additions with (Kristians) Rubins and (John) Dahlstrom really helped us.”
    The only big down parts the Tigers faced against Saskatoon came from the fact Blades left-winger Braylon Shmyr opened the game’s scoring at the 1:56 mark of the first period, and he added a second marker with 53.8 seconds to play in the opening frame to ensure both sides entered the first intermission locked in a 2-2 tie.
Chad Butcher circles in the offensive zone for the Tigers.
    The rest of the contest belonged to the Tigers. They transitioned up ice at a lightning pace stringing together various quick passes and were on top of Blades goaltenders Logan Flodell and then Brock Hamm with prime scoring chances. Medicine Hat also kept Saskatoon pinned in its own zone with a fairly aggressive forecheck.
    Fischer and offensive defenceman David Quenneville netted the Tigers first period tallies. The visitors blew the roof off the building in the second frame. Overage centre Chad Butcher scored 17 seconds into the middle stanza and right-winger Max Gerlach netted a hat trick, which included two tallies on impressive snipes, to put the Tigers up 6-2.
    Flodell was chased after the Tigers fourth goal at the 2:27 mark of the second turning away 17-of-21 shots sent his way. Hamm stopped 18-of-22 shots sent his direction as the Blade dropped to 10-16-1.
    In the third, Butcher collected his second goal of the night and Dahlstrom added a single to round out the blowout score. Netminder Nick Schneider turned away 22 shots to pick up the win in Medicine Hat’s goal.
    The Tigers effort was businesslike. After each goal, the players took part in a small celebration and calmly skated into position for the next faceoff.
David Quenneville rushes into the offensive zone for the Tigers.
    “It was pretty close there for a bit,” said Quenneville, who had an assist to go along with his goal. “We just played our game, and the floodgates blew open.
    “They were bound to fly open for a time being there, and they did. Honestly, we could have had five or six more, which is really exciting. It shows that when a game is pretty out of hand like it was tonight, that we don’t stop. That is real important for our group.”
    Clouston said one of the big keys this season was the fact his club stuck with a younger group of inexperienced defencemen last season. The Tigers usually like to keep a core of four to five blue-liners together over a three-year period to create a base and chemistry at that position.
    Medicine Hat’s back end has always been key in helping the Tigers quickly transitioning up ice with a quick first pass on to the tape of the stick of a forward striding at full speed. Clouston didn’t want to waive from his team’s style.
    “We knew that there was a certain way that we like to play,” said Clouston. “We could have changed our style a little bit (last season).
    “It might have helped us for the short term. We kept playing the same way and practicing the same way.
    “When we finally got through all our injuries and got healthy, it was starting to pay dividends towards the end of the season, and I think that is continuing this year.”
Goaltender Nick Schneider passes a puck up the boards for the Tigers.
    While he didn’t have an active night against the Blades, Schneider has been solid in his second full season as the Tigers starting goalie after spending about a season and a half as a backup. In 21 games in the current campaign, he has posted an 18-2-1 record, a 2.70 goals against average and a .905 save percentage. Clouston said Schneider has come a long way.
    “Last year, he struggled at the start of the year,” said Clouston. “It was his first opportunity to be the number one guy. It was a major challenge for him.
    “The way things worked out by the end of the year he was that number one guy again. Austin Lotz was with us for a short time, but had a season ending injury. By the end of the season, Schneids had kind of battled through his adversity and grew a lot from that experience, and that has carried over to this year.”
    Quenneville, who is in his third full season with the Tabbies, said it was important for his side to carry on and duplicate the team’s storied successes of the past. He believes his Tigers are getting back to that spot.
Captain Clayton Kirichenko gets set to drive a shot on goal for the Tigers.
    “Last year wasn’t our year, and we wanted to really get back to being a high caliber team in the Western Hockey League and dominating,” said Quenneville. “I think we have done that so far.
    “We have worked real hard. We’ve developed a lot in the last year, and we’re just continuing to get better, and that is the key for our group.”

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