A lot of things look different in the 2021 WHL season, but one thing that hasn’t changed is how the Lethbridge Hurricanes feel about their Highway 3 rivals the Medicine Hat Tigers.
In a normal year, a visit from the Tigers would mean more orange jerseys than usual scattered throughout the seats at the Enmax Centre. But even with no fans in the building this season, the Hurricanes believe the three games against Medicine Hat will be a heated battle.
“I think it will still be the same,” said Hurricanes forward Justin Hall. “You know we don’t really like those guys, they don’t like us. They’re probably our biggest rivals.”
Lethbridge would have faced the Tigers in the first round of the 2020 WHL playoffs had COVID-19 not caused the season to be cancelled.
Canes goaltender Bryan Thomson said the challenge this season is manufacturing momentum with no fans to feed off of, making finding a spark even more important than ever.
“I think Lethbridge has one of the best fan bases in the league — if not the best — so it’s really different, but finding energy within your team is big,” Thomson said.
“It spreads like wildfire for the team, even when someone makes a big hit and the boys get up on the bench, that’s a huge burst of energy for everyone, and it gets us going.”
Lethbridge will look to leapfrog Medicine Hat in the standings over three games in three nights starting Friday, with the Canes sitting just one point back of the Tigers.
Acting as a catalyst early in the season for Lethbridge has been Hall, who’s led the way on offence with six goals and 11 points through eight games.
So far, Hall is more than doubling his points-per-game pace from last season, and sits in the top five in Alberta’s Central Division amongst scoring leaders.
The success is something that Hall said he worked hard for over the extended off-season.
“I had a lot of time — everyone had a lot of time — but I think I just put my head down this summer, knew that it was going to be an extra long summer and tried to get as good as I could and use it to my advantage,” he said. “I’ve been working hard for a really long time and it’s been a journey to get to this point.
“I’m really happy with how I’m playing right now, happy to be here and leading the boys.”
On pace to crack 33 points in this 24-game regular season, Hall could come close to eclipsing his career-high numbers from 2019-2020 when he had 36 points; but that was over a span of 61 games played.
The improvements from the 19-year-old — who will turn 20 on Saturday when the Hurricanes host the Tigers — haven’t gone unnoticed by head coach Brent Kisio.
“You know he competes,” Kisio said. “When he’s on top of his game he’s battling, he’s competing, he’s playing the right way and getting around the net.
“I think we’ve seen that a lot more from him this year, where he’s around the net and he’s shooting pucks, and good things happen when you do that.”
Kisio said the keys for his squad against Medicine Hat will include improvements at five-on-five, with the Canes relying heavily upon both sides of special teams through the first eight games, as well as shutting down Tigers defenceman Cole Clayton.
Clayton has come out of the gates on fire for Medicine Hat, recording five goals and 14 points in just seven games.
“You know as a defenceman, if he’s shooting from the point, we have a chance to block a lot of times, and we need guys to be willing to pay the price and keep those out of our net,” Kisio said.
The puck will drop for Game 1 of the three-game series at 7 p.m. in Medicine Hat on Friday, before heading back to Lethbridge on Saturday and returning to Tigers territory for a 6 p.m. game on Sunday.