The race is still too close to call.
Medicine Hat’s backup goaltending battle races on tonight in Coaldale as the Tigers hit the ice against the Lethbridge Hurricanes for pre-season action, with head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston planning to give time to the presumptive starter and one of the backups.
“Right now we’ll be splitting games,” said Clouston, adding the right to play second fiddle to Calgary Flames prospect Nick Schneider in the upcoming WHL season is still a tight competition. Sixteen-year-old prospect Duncan McGovern and unsigned netminders Isaac LaBelle and C.J. Wedenig are all in the conversation.
“The two free agents have played well enough to still be here. J.F. (Martel, Tigers goaltending coach) has been in here this week over the past couple of days working with them on the ice in pairs.”
Schneider will start tonight with McGovern playing the last 30 minutes.
Clouston added the trio of hopefuls have all had further chances at scrimmages with the team’s 40-man roster this week, but without any competitive play under their belts, he wasn’t about to pick a favourite.
“They’ve each had the opportunity to scrimmage again on Monday and on Wednesday so it was a great opportunity for them and a real good opportunity for J.F. and the rest of us to continue to evaluate,” he said.
McGovern will look to crack the squad in his first year of eligibility after going in the fifth round of the 2015 bantam draft, while LaBelle and Wedenig will look to climb out of the midget AAA circuit onto junior hockey’s biggest stage. For the team’s returning crop of skaters — who said goodbye to overage goaltender Mack Shields in the off-season — it’s going to be an exciting chance to see what’s in store.
“Those goalies have been competing hard. It’s a little difficult to tell now because we’re not playing full games yet but there are a lot of good goalies here,” said Tigers forward Zach Fischer. “Schneids has good competition to keep him better and I think we’ll be good for goalies. They just need to make sure they compete hard and keep working hard every day.”
The Tigers fondly remember their last meeting with the ‘Canes, when a 4-2 victory on March 19 pushed their storybook season to a 73rd game in front of a packed house at the Canalta Centre. While the two-game set — starting tonight in Coaldale before switching to Taber Saturday night — won’t be reflected on the 2016-17 standings, Tabbies forward James Hamblin says it’s a rivalry game all the same.
“It’s definitely a game for our team to look forward to when you’re looking at the lineup of teams to play,” said Hamblin. “They definitely come hard and you definitely have a different mindset going into the game, just knowing who you’re playing and knowing what kind of game it’s going to be.
“It’s exciting to start off going against your rivals, even though it’s not the regular season. You never want to lose a game to your rivals,” added Fischer.
The Tigers will play all of their home pre-season games in small towns, stopping in Wainwright on Sept. 9 to host the Regina Pats and Ralston Sept. 16 to take on the Red Deer Rebels. Clouston added the team expects to see a good turnout across the small town schedule, while the players will likely relish the chance to compete in a minor-hockey-styled barn.
“They’re smaller buildings but there’s a lot of energy,” said Clouston. “They’re the types of rinks that most of the players grew up playing in so I think it’s nice to give back to some smaller communities. It’s usually a pretty big deal for the towns we’re playing in and they’re important games for evaluation.”