By Tyler Lowey, Times Reporter
The once high-flying Strathmore Wheatland Kings have fallen on hard times, as players and coaches become critical of their late-game efforts.
Not too long ago, the Kings were rolling teams, scoring upwards of seven goals a game, and it felt like everyone and their dog was scoring a hat trick.
These are different times, as for the first time this season, the Kings have blown back-to-back third period leads.
“Guys are getting away from our game plan. They know what they have to do, they did it through the first 16 games, but after we came off that six-game winning streak, things have snowballed downhill for us,” said Kings Head Coach Shadoe Stoodley.
The latest third period lead surrendered took place Nov. 26 at the Strathmore Family Centre, when the Kings led the High River Flyers 3-2, before allowing three straight to close out the final frame, losing 5-3.
The Kings (9-7-2) entered the weekend ender two points behind the Flyers (10-8-3) for third in the Southern Division.
Indiana Kelly was appearing in his 14th game for the Kings, already eclipsing last year’s total, and didn’t look sharp.
There were times throughout the night where shots squeezed through him, causing him to pray and fall back on a loose rebound. In the second, a dump-in caught him off guard and went between his legs, only to glance off the back of his skate and slide wide of the net, saving himself from Dan Cloutier highlights running through his mind.
“During our six-game winning streak, our goalies gave us a chance to win each night. In the last few games they haven’t done that. We have had to pull them a couple times lately,” said Stoodley. “Kelly has good starts, but then when he gets scored on lately, he has been losing his focus. Goalies get scored on – that’s part of the game. We need him to bear down and make saves for us.”
There was nothing Kelly could have done on the game-tying goal, as a point shot from Michael McTighe was tipped in by Devon Barlow.
Logan MacLean supplied the winner, as he scored from an odd angle through a screen, as Kelly appeared to not see the shot. Evan Pakkala pumped in a power play goal to close out the period.
“We aren’t winning battles we used to win in the past. We need to go through guys instead of swinging a poke check at them. Our faceoffs have been lackadaisical and we need a better effort on board battles,” said alternate captain Cole Busslinger. “We haven’t had the heart to win lately.”
It has been a frustrating go for Busslinger this season. Last year he netted 14 goals in 35 games. He entered the tilt against the Flyers with one goal in his last seven games, but got on board at the 19:59 mark of the first period.
Crashing down the ice with less than 20 seconds remaining, Busslinger cut to the middle and roofed one past Chantz Vinck at the buzzer.
“I could hear everyone yelling to shoot; I saw the goalie slide to the right so I shot left and it went in,” said Busslinger.
‘The Kings’ most productive line got things going 2:22 seconds after Bussligner’s goal in hockey time, but about 20 minutes later in real time, when George Montour buried his 13th on a power play from Garret Vander Ploeg and Brenden Moore.
Vander Ploeg was at it again to close out the second, as Montour dished a perfect pass to Chayse Hnatowich out front. Even with Vinck down and out, Hnatowich had the presence of mind to wait for Vander Ploeg to get even more open, before sliding him the puck for the easy tap-in.
Vander Ploeg is flourishing during his first year with the Kings. In 18 games, he has six goals and 12 points. He’s even caught the eye of his older brother Hayden.
“It’s awesome playing on the same team as him,” said Hayden. “We have a good connection out on the ice, get to spend a lot more time together and it’s great to see him making an impact.”
But not too big of an impact according to the older brother of three years.
“Of course, we have a rivalry out there. We want to do better in everything – goals, points – I want to do better than him,” said Hayden, who also has 12 points this season.
Both brothers were held off the score sheet one night earlier as the Kings let another 3-2 third-period lead evaporate.
At least that time the Kings managed to force the extra frame, where they didn’t record a shot on net and fell 4-3 to the Mountainview Colts (10-7-3) at the Didsbury Recreation Complex.
Bradley Tingey, captain Keenan Ogle and Hnatowich picked up the tallies for the Kings, as they led 3-0 into the second half of the middle frame.
“Last night we weren’t tough enough in our own end,” said Stoodley. “We let them stand there in the slot and take any shot they wanted and whack away at the rebound. When it’s five-on-five, we need to find our man and cover him. Nobody should have been open like that.”
The Kings will look to find their footing this month, as four of their six games will take place at the Strathmore Family Centre.
There is only one game on tap for the Kings this weekend, as they host the Blackfalds Wranglers (12-4-0) Dec. 2 at 8 p.m.