Winnipeg Ice president and GM Matt Cockell isn’t about to put the touch on team owner Greg Fettes for Memorial Cup rings just yet.
But for a franchise that has averaged just 16-17 wins over the previous four seasons, a 19-13-1 record and holding down second place in the WHL East Division going into Christmas is a clear representation that progress is being made towards achieving that lofty goal at some point. And with a young lineup, there is every reason to believe Winnipeg has a chance to continue that path of improvement into the second half of the schedule.
One of those key areas the Ice will likely want to address is goals against. Specifically the penalty kill. Only the Red Deer Rebels (130) and Swift Current Broncos (136) have allowed more goals than the 126 surrendered by Winnipeg to date. And no team has struggled playing a man short like the Ice have. Head Coach James Patrick and his assistants Jon Klemm and Josh Green have done a nice job of guiding their players in the discipline department as Winnipeg is the second-least penalized team in the WHL. And it’s a good thing, because at 71.3 per cent, the Ice are dead last in the league when it comes to penalty-killing efficiency.
Teams who excel when playing a man short will often point to goaltending as a big reason why. Winnipeg has already used five different netminders in just 33 games, so that in itself would provide some insight into the penalty-killing problems. Perhaps overage puckstopper Liam Hughes will be the answer in providing a better last line of defense? A 2.94 goals-against average and .897 saves percentage is a marked improvement over the statistics of the other four ‘tenders who preceded him.
Having Captain Peyton Krebs around for the entire second half will also be a huge boost for Winnipeg. Despite being off skates for the better part of five months, Krebs has scored twice and set up 11 other goals for 13 points in the 11 games since being returned by the Vegas Golden Knights. The soon-to-be 19-year-old center from Okotoks, Alta. had to be disappointed with not making Canada’s National Junior team, but did have his second three-point game against Brandon just before the break.
But it’s not all just on the Captain. Connor McClennon has evolved into a “go to guy” upfront while Chicago Blackhawk prospect Michal Teply has been everything, and maybe even more than what Ice management was expecting when they made the 4th overall pick in the CHL Import draft. The 6-3, 192 pound 18-year-old right winger is among the WHL leaders in game-winning goals with five in the 30 games he played prior to leaving for the World Junior Tournament in his home nation of the Czech Republic.
Winnipeg has also made Wayne Fleming Arena one of the toughest venues for visiting teams in the WHL. After starting 0-3 on the U of M campus, the Ice have won 11 of 13 games since and only the league-leading Edmonton Oil Kings have won more games on home ice than Winnipeg has in the Eastern Conference.
The Ice kick off their post-Christmas schedule with a home-and-home series against Brandon next Friday and Saturday (Dec 27/28) that will also launch “the back nine” of their schedule. With the way that rivalry has developed through the first six games, it shouldn’t take more than a shift or two for any residual feelings of goodwill from the holiday season to disappear.
You can catch both games on 680 CJOB with Mitch Peacock. Next Friday’s broadcast gets underway at 7 p.m. with the pregame show from Westman Place. And the broadcast from the Ice Cave the following night will be a 7:30 p.m. start.