March 3rd, 2024

Tigers look for a mature second half

By JAMES TUBB on December 27, 2023.

NEWS PHOTO JAMES TUBB Medicine Hat Tigers captain Tyler MacKenzie looks for options with the puck in the first period of the Tigers 6-3 win on Oct. 28 over the Seattle Thunderbirds at Co-op Place.

jtubb@medicinehatnews.com@ReporterTubb

The Medicine Hat Tigers had a strong first half that put them in first place of the Central division. With 36 games left on the calendar, they’re looking to stay there.

The Tigers open up the unofficial second half of the 2023-24 WHL season tonight on the road at Red Deer against the Rebels. Medicine Hat entered the holidays with a 21-9-2 record having won seven of their last 10 games. Including tonight’s contest, 26 of their remaining 36 games will be against Central division opponents. They are 10-4-1 against their own division so far and have a 5-2-1 against the East division.

It’s those rival games that not only will decide their playoff standings but are the ones they’re most excited for, captain Tyler MacKenzie says.

“Those are the kind of games we want to play going into the new year, in February and down the line as we get closer to closing in on playoffs, those are the games we want to play,” MacKenzie said. “We want to make sure we’re staying sharp and those are the times you have to build your habits. We always talk about being the championship team around here. Playing those games like a playoff game for us, it’s going to be the most important.”

MacKenzie has enjoyed the first half of his first season as captain and the roles and responsibilities that title brings. He says the group has made it easy for him and has been receptive to any message he, the leadership group or the coaches bring. MacKenzie says the coaches are treating them like a championship team and that’s the level they are holding each other to.

As they head into the playoff push, he’s looking for the group to find that next level of maturity on and off the ice.

“We’ve always talked about just having a good game, not being able to get too high on things and blocking out some of the social media stuff,” MacKenzie said. “That’s a big thing as much as it seems like it’s not, everyone’s looking at it. You never know if it affects you, but it does at some point in time. So just making sure we’re focused on our group in this room. Every day you come to the rink we’re having fun and we talked about being a family, too. So we all want to have each other’s backs, make sure we’re all doing good.”

The Tigers know how crucial the second half is and the ability teams have to jump around in the standings. Last year’s team entered the holidays below .500, sitting in the eighth spot with a 13-17-4-1 record. They briefly moved up in the standings at times and for what must have felt like an eternity to fans, were dancing on the line or outside looking in.

It took until the final game of the regular season to ensure a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2018-19. There are parts of their game they look to get better at as they approach the playoffs. For associate coach Joe Frazer, he wants to see them get better between the ears.

“That’s why this league is so great, it’s hard every night and you have to be ready to go, so if we can mature and just become more prolific with our mindset and how we attack each day, we’ll continue to improve and get better,” Frazer said. “Our leadership group and our young guys really want it and they want to get better. If we can really attack each day with the same mindset, there’s a certain way we play and we have to do it for 60 minutes. That’ll be the key for the second half, if we can really buckle down and play Tigers hockey for 60 minutes and then do it again the next night and the next night. If we can do that, then that’ll be exciting.”

From the eyes of head coach and general manager Willie Desjardins, who has seen and been part of a lot of winning in the city having picked up his 450th career WHL win on Dec. 16, he’s looking for improvements on structure. How that comes to be for his club depends on further execution of a work ethic that he says is already good and will need to continue to be if they want to be great.

“We work pretty hard as a group, we play with good pace but we’ll want to be even more,” Desjardins said. “If there are good teams, if you work hard, you always have a chance. If you can outwork a team, you always have a chance to beat them. So that’s going to be what we have to do, we have to outwork them. Then we have to have really good discipline.

“If we do those two things, we’ll be hard to beat.”

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