Huskies show improvement in close losses

Considering the Whitehorse Huskies were outscored 28-5 in their last three games, this weekend’s pair of close losses is a definite improvement, says the team’s coaching staff.

Considering the Whitehorse Huskies were outscored 28-5 in their previous three games, this weekend’s pair of close losses is a definite improvement, says the team’s coaching staff.

“We have to be happy,” said Huskies head coach Randy Merkel. “We brought a bunch of guys in that have never played together, don’t really know each other, dropped them on the ice and were relying on them as

experienced hockey players to gel. I think they did a really good job; the team made significant strides (forward) from previous performances.

“The pick-ups (Outside players) put us in the position where we can compete at this level.”

“Overall, I think we made significant strides in a very short period of time,” said Huskies assistant coach Jay Glass. “I think we’ve opened the eyes of BC Amateur (Hockey Association) and certainly the opponents

that we’re playing against.”

The Huskies AAA hockey club welcomed back the Powell River Regals for a two-game series at Takhini Arena over the weekend. Both nights the Huskies made up lost ground on the scoreboard, but in the end the

Regals came out on top, winning 6-3 Friday and 5-3 Saturday.

“For me we were missing that little push,” said Glass. “At this level it’s a fine line between winning and losing, and it was just that little mental edge, where we have to push a little harder mentally and physically at the

right times.

“The effort was there and we were clearly in the game.”

Ending the trend the Huskies have set in previous games, keeping the game close in the first before running out of gas in the second and third periods, the Whitehorse squad played tough all six periods, often showing

life when needed most.

Down 4-1 to start the third on Friday, the Huskies closed the gap to 4-3 with Huskies captain Derek Johnstone knocking in a floating puck in front of the Regals net, on a rebound from a shot from teammate Aaron Pettitt.

Eight minutes later Johnstone held the blue line to get the puck to Ryan Gleason, who scored the Huskies’ final goal on a wrist shot from the slot. Scoring the Huskies’ first goal was new recruit Ryan Esselmont from

Burnaby, BC, playing his first game on the team.

“I’m not sure why we didn’t come out a little bit faster this time,” said Johnstone. “If we can get one or two goals off the start like they did, it might be a totally different game.

“We know where we stand with them, we still have a few things to work on, but we’re looking forward to the challenge of it.”

On Saturday, the Huskies kept at the Regals’ heels, with defenceman Brandon Fleenor picking off a Regals pass and scoring a shorthanded goal, unassisted, to make it 2-1 for the Regals in the second. Esselmont

scored the remaining two Huskies goals in the third period.

“No question, they definitely had a stronger side this weekend and we saw that both games,” said Regals head coach Rick Hopper. “Neither game was an easy game. I think we got fortunate and got two good starts in

both games. I think that told the story, especially tonight.

“Once they started coming, we had to do everything we could to hold the horses. Fortunately we got some timely goals, particularly that one scored with four seconds left in the (second) period. Those are tough to

swallow, so that probably hurt them.”

For many of the Huskies, the series was a learn-as-you-go experience, with five new Outside players – bringing the team total to eight – being tossed into the lineup for the games with no previous ice-time with the

team.

Included in the newest Outside recruits is former Toronto Maple Leaf John Craighead, who had two assists Saturday, playing his first “real” games in six years.

“Just some time,” said Craighead, when asked what’s missing from the team. “Maybe next time we can get a few of the guys up here a day earlier before a game, get a feel for each other, talk to each other.

“It’s hard to pull in some guys you’ve never met, take them off a plane and throw them on the ice together and expect them to win games – especially at this level. But I think the chemistry is great – they’re a great

bunch of guys. The local guys work their asses off.”

None of the Outside players, all of whom are up from BC, were able to attend the final practice before Friday’s game, but that was a necessary evil, said Glass.

“That’s why we’re gearing up with these (Outside) guys – we do not want to be there and get blown out of the rink,” said Glass. “This year we’re happy to play at a AAA level and we have to find a way to be competitive

there. If people here are worried about local guys (playing on the team), you can’t do that. In any jurisdiction, if you have junior team or senior teams, not a lot of guys are local.

“We have eight or nine local guys on this team – that’s pretty good for a AAA level.”

“It was tough playing with those guys just coming in like that, but they sure helped,” said Johnstone. “I don’t think we’re done yet, maybe a couple more players to shore it up a bit. It’s unfortunate for local players, but if you keep practicing and playing, you’ll get into the lineup. It’s going to work.”

The Huskies’ next series is scheduled for March 12 and 13 in Whitehorse against the Fort Saint John Flyers, the current team former NHLer Theoren Fleury. (The series may be moved to the following weekend against another team.)

However, the Huskies’ main focus is the five-game series against the Regals at the start of April to determine which team gets to go to the Allan Cup later that month.

“Randy and I said from day one, when everyone was laughing at us, that we’re going to be competitive,” said Glass. “We’re not going to be pushed around, we’re not going to give it away. Whoever comes in here is

going to have to work hard and they’re going to have to take it from us, because we intend to go to the Allan Cup.”

Contact Tom Patrick at tomp@yukon-news.com