Talking to Calgary Hitmen coach Mike Williamson, one is reminded it's not the most talented team which wins in the playoffs, but the most tested team.
That hints at a possible difference between these Hitmen, up 2-1 over Brandon in the WHL Eastern Conference final entering Game 4 tonight against the Memorial Cup-host Wheat Kings, and last year's edition. This spring, Calgary actually needed one more game to get through the first two rounds than its '08-09 team needed to get through the first three, before bowing in a six-game final to Kelowna.
"We're comfortable in close games," said Williamson, who took over after Dave Lowry was promoted to the Calgary Flames as as an assistant coach. "I wasn't here last season so I can't speak to what happened, but from what I’ve heard and seen, they rolled through playoffs, won the first three rounds in sweep. This time, it's been a different path for us. We had a good regular season (107 points), but we've had to scratch and claw. I think we still have lots of rooms for improvement.
"We've found different ways to win, whether it's good goaltending from Jonesy (Canadian world junior team 'tender Martin Jones), the power play producing or tight defence. You need that in this league."
At first glance, Calgary is largely the same crew which piled up a gaudy 122 points last season, boasting the WHL's leading scorer in Brandon Kozun (107 points) and and most efficient goalie in Jones, who might get to play in his hometown of Vancouver in the final (not to put the cart before the horse).
GM Kelly Kisio, the former NHL centre, made some important tweaks in-season, adding some bulk by dealing with Kamloops for forwards Jimmy Bubnick and Tyler Shattock and defenceman Zak Stebner.
"They're all pretty big bodies who've added a great deal to our team," Williamson, who spent six years with the Portland Winter Hawks.
An earlier move with Kamloops for overage defenceman Giffen Nyren, who can be high-risk, high-reward, is also paying off. Williamson has noted Nyren is a bit high-risk, but has been among Calgary's best in the playoffs.
It adds up to a team which should be able to bunker down for the long haul in what should be a long series with Brandon. Calgary, living up to the notion of winning in ways unimagined, prevailed 6-3 in Game 3 despite giving up a short-handed natural hat trick to the Wheat Kings' Matt Calvert, who scored on three consecutive power plays.
Naturally, that evoked a NHL game a few weeks ago where Boston scored three times during one penalty.
"That's what we said," Williamson said. "At least it wasn't during one penalty. We were wondering if we could decline our next power play.
"You certainly have to give Calvert credit. It was 4-0, 4-1 in the game at the time, and he made some great plays, took advantage of some sort turnovers. Definitely that's something we'll have to address."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Sports Canada. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Calgary Hitmen