February 29th, 2024

Tigers coming off productive first half

By JAMES TUBB on December 21, 2023.

NEWS PHOTO JAMES TUBB Medicine Hat Tigers forward Shane Smith embraces goaltender Ethan McCallum after recording his first WHL win in a 4-1 victory over the Everett Silvertips on Nov. 4 at Co-op Place.

jtubb@medicinehatnews.com@ReporterTubb

The Medicine Hat Tigers came out of the gates and didn’t look back to start the 2023-24 WHL season.

At the unofficial halfway point of the campaign, the Tigers sit in first place of the Central division, second in the Eastern conference and fourth in the entire league with a record of 21-9-2. They have scored the third most goals, with 143, and have surrendered the fourth fewest in 95.

Internally, there was a belief heading into the year they could reach this point because of the goals and standards put in place after being swept in the first round of the playoffs last year after sneaking into the postseason on the last possible day. Forward Hunter St. Martin was around for the Tigers’ 11-win season and played a big role in their success last year.

This season, the 18-year-old says they’re at a point they have to start meeting their expectation, and have done it so far.

“You have to win, you have to live up to the standards, and going into the second half that gets even more intense, your details just go up,” St. Martin said. “We want to win, we believe we can win this year. It all goes back to that every practice, you’re dialling everything in, it’s up to those championship standards. That’s what we’re living and breathing.”

The Tigers have done a good job of stringing together wins through their first 32 games, putting together a couple of three- and four-game winning streaks. They’ve avoided the long losing streaks that plagued them in previous seasons, their longest slump so far being four games.

They’ve won close games and have blown teams out in wins, having won by six goals or more three times. Their power play is converting at the third highest rate (26.7) and their penalty kill is at the same level league wide (84.6). Finding ways to win has been a large focus for the group that has suffered through times in the past where wins were hard to come by.

“We’ve had great goaltending some games to steal us a few, the penalty kill has won us a few and our power play has won us a few games,” associate coach Joe Frazer said. “Our D-corps gives us a chance to be hard and shut teams down most nights. Our speed up front gives us a chance to create turnovers and use our skill in the O-zone. It’s been a productive first half and there’s a lot of room for growth, which is exciting.”

The Tigers have received individual efforts that have helped lead the way as well. Three players are at the 40-point plateau, led by Cayden Lindstrom (27 G, 46P) Andrew Basha (16G, 45P) and Oasiz Wiesblatt (10G, 42 P). There are two 30-point players in rookie Gavin McKenna (11G, 32P) and captain Tyler MacKenzie (13G, 30P).

Besides McKenna who missed six games to play for Canada at the U17’s, their 16-year-olds have only missed games due to healthy scratches and have contributed to their offence. The contribution from their youngest players and the offseason commitment from the team as a whole is what has stood out to head coach Willie Desjardins in the first half.

“We’ve had some individuals come in who took huge jumps over the summer and that’s a real credit to our guys and how hard they trained,” Desjardins said. “It’s a credit to some of the 16-year-olds who have come in and haven’t played like 16-year-olds, they’ve been pretty impressive. We’ve been lucky with our guys and how hard they’ve worked.

“Saying that, there’s games we think we could have won that we lost. I do expect it to be tougher second half, we’ve stayed really relatively healthy, which has been lucky for us, we’ve been really fortunate with that and that can change things really quick.”

The Tigers’ three-headed goaltending monster of Evan May, Zach Zahara and Ethan McCallum have all contributed, each recording at least five wins. May has appeared in 20 games and both Zahara and McCallum have eight games under their belt this season.

There’s not one specific number or attribute that has led to their success, Desjardins says, beyond showing up every day and playing their best.

“If you play every day, some days you win, some days you don’t, but you’ve got a chance,” Desjardins said. “There’s other good teams around us who just haven’t found their stride yet. Red Deer is starting to move now, if they were going like that earlier maybe it’d be a different story, they could be ahead of us. Brandon is playing good, Calgary’s last games were good, Lethbridge has a good unit and Swift Current hasn’t been healthy. So there’s so many things around other teams that maybe that’s a little bit of the reason they’re not there, because they’ve had some adversity.

“But you have to give our players credit because they’ve found a way. There’s been tough trips, tough times, lots of stuff. But they found a way on those nights to find ways to win, so lots of credit to them.”

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