CALGARY — The Calgary Hitmen want to close the deal this time.
The Western Hockey League’s regular-season champions for the second straight year want the league title to go with it.
The Hitmen and Tri-City Americans open their best-of-seven championship series, the Ed Chynoweth Cup, today in Calgary.
Calgary was upset in last year’s final by the Kelowna Rockets in six games. The Hitmen have 11 players returning from that lineup.
“That feeling when you lose is something you never forget and I’m going to try and use that for motivation and bring it home this time,” Hitmen forward Brandon Kozun said Thursday.
“Anything but a victory would be a letdown.”
The series pits the big, powerful star-studded Hitmen against the small, quick Americans. Calgary has eight draft picks in their lineup, while the Americans have just two.
The winner advances to the Memorial Cup tournament May 14-23 in Brandon, Man. The Hitmen beat Brandon 4-1 in the Eastern Conference final, but the Wheat Kings already have a berth in the Canadian Hockey League championship as the host team.
The Ontario Hockey League final is underway between the Windsor Spitfires, the defending Memorial Cup champions, and the Barrie Colts.
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League representative will be decided in an all-New Brunswick final series also starting today between the Moncton Wildcats and Saint John Sea Dogs.
Calgary’s last appearance in a Memorial Cup was 1999 when they lost the final 7-6 in overtime to the host Ottawa 67’s. The Americans, who play out of Kennewick, Wash., have never won a WHL title and are playing in the league final for the first time in their 22-year history.
Both clubs had new coaches this season. Americans coach John Hiller joked with Calgary counterpart Mike Williamson at Wednesday’s news conference that both of them were unemployed a year ago.
“We can joke about it now, but it wasn’t very funny at this time last year,” Hiller said.
The Hitmen, owned by the NHL’s Calgary Flames, posted a 52-17-1-2 record with Williamson.
The former Portland Winter Hawk was hired last year when Dave Lowry took a job as an assistant coach with the Flames.
Calgary boasts the WHL’s leading scorer, the winner of the league’s goaltending award and the runner-up for top defenceman, which are were Brandon Kozun, Martin Jones and Michael Stone respectively. Kozun and Jones, both Los Angeles Kings prospects, both played for Canada’s junior team this year.
Kozun leads the WHL playoff scoring race with seven goals and 19 assists in 18 games. Joe Broda, Tyler Shattock and Kris Foucault provided secondary playoff scoring with 25 goals between them.
The Hitmen survived a first-round scare against Moose Jaw, trailing 3-1 in the series before coming back to win it. Calgary then ousted Medicine Hat in six games before dispatching Brandon.
“We know what we’re doing,” Kozun said. “We’ve had a lot of guys play in big games and we know how to handle these pressure situations.”
Calgary is an overall bigger team than the Americans, which may give them an advantage along the boards and in front of the net over Tri-City.
“Even though we’re small, we’re hard working and we have guys who aren’t scared to go into the corners and make plays,” Americans forward Brendan Shinnimin said.
Former NHL goaltender Olaf Kolzig and centre Stu Barnes are among the owners of the Americans. Hiller coached the Americans to a 47-22-1-2 record to top the Western Conference.
Winnipeg’s Shinnimin led their offence in both the playoffs (eight goals, 14 assists) and the regular season (27 goals, 55 assists). Tri-City has eight forwards with at least 10 points in the post-season, including Kruise Reddick, Red Deer native Justin Feser and Brooks Macek, who have combined for 18 goals.
Drew Owsley of Lethbridge has been the goaltending star of the WHL’s post-season with a goals-against average of 2.14 and a save percentage of .931, while the Americans’ defence has helped limit goals against to 39.
While Tri-City was never pushed to a full seven games in previous series wins against Chilliwack, Kelowna and Vancouver, they too had a character test in the first round. Chilliwack scored twice in the last 22 seconds of Game 4 to send it to overtime, before the Ams scored to take a 3-1 lead in the series.
Calgary and Tri-City teams met only once during the regular season with host Calgary prevailing 3-0 on Jan. 31.
“It’s kind of what we’ve been working on the last couple days, trying to get a bit of a scouting report,” Jones said.
“The first couple games might be a little bit feeling each other out, but obviously we know they’re fast and skilled and can score a lot of goals, so we have to make sure we take care of our own end.”
Tri-City may be more of a no-name team than Calgary, but with 17 players eligible for the NHL draft in June, the Americans lineup will be peppered with draft picks next season.
“We don’t have the star players, if that’s what you want to call it, but we’re very well balanced,” said Hiller.
“We’ve got a lot of players trying to get that leg up and trying to elevate their standing within the world juniors and with NHL scouts. We don’t feel at all intimidated.”
WHL Championship Series
Calgary Hitmen vs. Tri-City Americans
The Hitmen have returned to the ball for a second consecutive season and have every intention of getting the last dance this year after falling in six games to Kelowna last spring. For the Americans, it’s their initial appearance in the league final after capturing the Western Conference title for the first time in their 22-year history. The Hitmen boast plenty of skill both up front and on the blue-line, and they’re a bigger team than the Ams, who have successfully dealt with that so-called disadvantage all season. While Calgary has the league scoring champ in Brandon Kozun and a genuine sniper in Joel Broda, the team also gets production from the likes of large forwards Ian Schultz and Tyler Shattock. The Americans are led by the likes of Johnny Lazo, Red Deer native Justin Feser, Brooks Macek, Kruise Reddick, Jordan Messier and Brendan Shinnimin. Most, if not all, of the aforementioned are burners and Tri-City’s edge in speed should make for a close series. Calgary might have an advantage in the goaltending department with WHL netminder of the year Martin Jones, but it’s a slight edge, at best. Tri-City stopper Drew Owsley is a Western Conference second-team all star and was the MVP of the Western Conference final.
Prediction: Calgary in six.
Record to date: 12-2.