It’s a small sample size but the devastating offensive attack unleashed by the Winnipeg Ice during the opening two weeks of the WHL regular season is really bad news for its East Division rivals.
The Winnipeggers won all four of their games, outscoring the opposition 30-5 while holding a 164-71 edge in shots on goal.
As good as they’ve looked, veteran right-winger Connor McClennon believes there’s plenty of room for improvement.
"It’s still early in the year and we’re still finding chemistry," said McClennon, who plays on the top scoring line with centre Matt Savoie and left-winger Owen Pederson. "I’ve really only been back for a couple of weeks (from NHL camp). Our line only got two practices together before we played a game, so I think we’re still finding that chemistry, putting the work in every day and wanting to get better.
"(Head coach James Patrick’s) done a really good job with everyone, making sure everyone’s involved and working hard."
The numbers appear bear McClennon out.
He has four goals and seven points in four games, one behind a trio of Winnipeg players — forwards Pederson and Mikey Milne and defenceman Ben Zloty — who lead the league scoring race with eight points each. Savoie and No. 2 centre Conor Geekie also have seven points each, meaning Ice players occupy five of the top seven spots in the WHL scoring race.
Curiously, this offensive explosion comes despite losing WHL player of the year Peyton Krebs to the professional ranks.
"I wouldn’t put pressure on Matt to be like Krebsie or anything but they do play similar games," said McClennon. "They both skate really well. I think Krebsie’s more of a passer that Matt is. I think he likes to shoot, too, but he’s a heck of a player and he’s gonna have a big year."
Geekie has also found himself in tremendous company, playing on a line with the speedy Milne and right-winger Jakin Smallwood, a crafty overager who has piled up six points himself.
"He’s a great skater, he’s gives me the puck and we kind of give-and-go," said Geekie. "And Jakin’s kind of the leader on our line. He plays the D-zone a lot better than I do for sure, so I think he’s kind of a role model of our group. He plays the game really well."
The sum total of this dominance is the fastest start in the 24-year history of the franchise. The best previous mark was a 3-0-1 start to begin the 2004-05 season, when the club was still based in Cranbrook, B.C.
Although a complete statistical accounting is not available, freelance Canadian Hockey League statistician Geoffrey Brandow reports Winnipeg’s 25-goal differential through its first four games is unmatched by any WHL or Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team since at least 2015. Furthermore, no Ontario Hockey League club has come close to that dominance since 2012.
The Ice will be put to the test this weekend with a road game in Regina Friday night and home dates against the Pats and Swift Current Broncos on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
"I’m not going to accept not trying to get better," said Patrick. "I want every guy competing and pushing themselves in all the (practice) drills. Whether it means me yelling at the whole group or having words with them on an individual basis."
Patrick would like to see his players become more efficient around the net and he also expects some tactical changes from their opponents.
"I think we’ll start seeing some different looks in the neutral zone and we’re gonna have to adapt and we’re gonna have to adjust," said Patrick. "I know in the past when a team has a really good rush game, there’s teams that are gonna say, ‘we’re not gonna give rush chances. We will do everything possible, we will line up four across the blue line, we will play a one-four. They’re not getting rush chances.’ So then you have to find (another) way."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.