By Tyler Lowey, Times Reporter
It’s early, but the Strathmore Wheatland Kings are sending shockwaves around the Heritage Junior Hockey League.
To open the year, the Kings knocked off their arch nemesis and the division winner from last season. For their next trick, they put their body on the line and knocked off the defending HJHL champions.
In a frantic final 2:16 of six-on-four action, the Kings hung onto the 3-2 lead to sting the Red Deer Vipers Oct. 1 at the Strathmore Family Centre.
The Kings had dropped three straight to the Vipers (2-1-0), being out-scored 15-7 over that stretch. Their last win against the Snakes came Nov. 21 of 2015, when the Kings clipped the Vipers 9-8 in overtime.
“Confidence is everything, and right now that dressing room is full with it,” said Kings Assistant Coach Braden Desmet.
The weekend home series didn’t get off on the right foot, as the Kings melted away a 3-2 lead thanks to a parade to the penalty box and getting outshot 24-9 in the third period, as they fell 7-4 to the Airdrie Techmation Thunder (3-1-0).
The script was completely flipped against the Vipers in the third period.
Naturally, there was a schmutz of penalties in the second period, followed by an eight-minute delay while officials sorted out the ordeal, but that’s where the dysfunction stopped for the Kings.
The Kings (2-1-1) still took four minors in the third, but there was no retaliation, behind-the-play, unnecessary nastiness that has haunted this team in the past.
With 2:24 remaining, the Kings most reliable defenceman, Hayden Vander Ploeg, got called for slashing.
That’s when the heart of this Kings team was tested.
It all started with Brenden Moore brilliantly sliding on a two-on-one on Vander Ploeg’s delayed penalty call.
In the final minute, Cole Busslinger, Jaks Faris and Keenan Ogle laid out and picked up booming blocked shots, to preserve the win.
“It’s exciting to see an effort like that,” said Chayse Hnatowich. “It fires us up on the bench and makes us all realize how important it is to lay out. It makes you want to do the same thing in our next game.”
Hnatowich might owe Busslinger, Faris and Ogle lunch this week, as those blocked shots allowed Hnatowich’s first career HJHL goal to hold up as the game-winner.
On the power play with just under six minutes remaining in the second, Zach Meadows threw a shot on net from behind the right faceoff circle. On its way to the net, Hnatowich got a piece of it, redirecting it past Vipers netminder Cole Sears.
“We work on deflection drills at practice, but I also just threw my stick out there and hoped for the best,” said the 18-year-old Hnatowich. “I knew (my stick) was below the crossbar, but I didn’t know by how much. I’m glad no one challenged it.”
As for what he did with the game-winning puck, the Chestermere native is keeping it in a safe spot.
“I got the puck hanging out in my stall for now,” said Hnatowich. “At least until I get a couple more go in for me.”
Hnatowich has benefited from the red-hot play of Meadows, who also picked up a goal at the 3:09 mark in the second stanza.
The two points against the Vipers went along well with his two goals and one helper against the Thunder equaled one solid weekend for the third-year Calgary product.
Already halfway to his career-high in goals through four games, Meadows claims he didn’t do anything different in the summer in preparation for his third season with the Kings.
In fact, he hasn’t changed a thing.
“My only thing is I don’t walk past the visitors locker room. I will go in through the side doors, up the stands and back down the other, just so I don’t have to look at the other team’s dressing room (before games),” said Meadows. “I don’t like looking at it. Me and (their locker room) just don’t get along.”
Whatever his reasoning behind the superstition is, Kings General Manager Darcy Busslinger should do whatever he can to quarantine Meadows away from the visitors dressing room to keep his production going.
Whether it’s superstitions or hard work, the Kings have played well against the big boys in the league and could be a force to reckoned within the division.
“We’re competing with the best of the best right now,” said Hnatowich. “That has always been the goal.”
“It’s bumpin’ inside our locker room right now,” said Meadows. “We are going to try and ride this for a while.”
The Kings will look to continue the good vibes on the road against the Ponoka Stampede Oct. 7 at the Ponoka Culture and Recreation Complex. Then, they will travel to the Spray Lakes Family Sports Centre to tangle with the Cochrane Generals.
The Kings next home game is slated for Oct. 14, when they host the Stettler Lightning (1-2-0) at the Family Centre. Puck drop goes at 8 p.m.