By Sonny Sachdeva, March 8 2016 —
The Calgary Hitmen have clinched a spot in the 2016 WHL Playoffs.
Holding a record of 37–25–2, the Hitmen are currently ranked as the third seed in the WHL’s Central Division, booking their ticket to the postseason with a 4–3 win over the Swift Current Broncos.
With only six games remaining in their regular season, the local club is pushing through their final stretch of preparations before embarking on a playoff run that figures to look a lot different than last season’s.
The Hitmen finished first in their division during the 2014–15 regular season. They then put together a strong playoff campaign that saw them go all the way to the Eastern Conference final — taking down the Kootenay Ice and the Medicine Hat Tigers in the first two rounds — before being ousted by the Brandon Wheat Kings.
But Calgary’s less inspiring position in the standings isn’t the only difference this season has brought. The Hitmen’s offence has been a work in progress since game one, as the club lost their top four forwards from 2014–15.
For the first time in four years, Calgary doesn’t have a single player who ranks among the top 20 scorers in the WHL. Last season, the club had two amid this group — Connor Rankin and Adam Tambellini, the latter of which finished 10th in the league with 86 points in 71 games.
Tambellini moved on to the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL, while Rankin currently suits up for the CIS’ Mount Royal University Cougars. Jake Virtanen, the Hitmen’s third elite scoring threat from last season, is currently plying his trade with the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. Rounding out the group was Chase Lang, who was traded to the WHL’s Vancouver Giants in October.
However, while the Hitmen’s group of forwards took a significant hit after losing these four talented scorers, the club has found success through other means — most notably, their exceptional blue-line.
Defenders Jake Bean and Travis Sanheim have proven themselves to be among the top defensive talents in junior hockey this season. Bean ranks fourth in scoring among all WHL defencemen with 60 points in 64 games. Sanheim — who led all WHL defenders in scoring last season — ranks sixth with 56 points in only 46 games.
Sanheim’s top 10 ranking is especially notable considering he’s the only defenceman in the top 20 to have played fewer than 50 games. The 19-year-old missed a portion of the Hitmen’s season to join Team Canada at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Bean’s and Sanheim’s impact goes far beyond their high rankings though. The pair have played a central role in helping the Hitmen find success this season — in Calgary’s past six wins alone, the duo has racked up a combined 18 points.
The Hitmen will need Bean and Sanheim to continue that exceptional level of play if they hope to claw their way back to the Eastern Conference final once again. While Calgary will likely come up against clubs with more dangerous offensive pieces up front, the Hitmen have proven time and time again that their elite defensive pair can take the team on their back if need be. The club will likely rely heavily on them doing just that.
Calgary is slated to face the Red Deer Rebels in the opening round of the playoffs, which begin on March 25.