Passing the one-third post of the season, the Bombers are near the top of the SJHL standings - but “near” isn’t quite good enough for team brass.
Heading into this weekend, the Bombers have a 14-6 record and 28 points, good enough for fourth in the league. The team has held first place for a span this season, even being nationally ranked in the CJHL’s weekly top 20 rankings - the team didn’t make the cut this week.
“We have to be happy with that. We’ve had first place overall for a couple of weeks and we’ve been nationally ranked at one point. I think we’ve got to be pretty happy. I don’t think a lot of people predicted we’d be in this position and I think a lot of people thought we’d be fighting near the bottom of the league,” said head coach and general manager Mike Reagan.
That said, despite the early season success, Reagan is hoping for better, saying the team hasn’t yet played its best hockey despite a positive record.
“If you were to ask me at the start of the year if I’d be happy that we were 14-6, I’d tell you no. I feel we haven’t played our best hockey and as much as that sounds crazy, I think it’s a positive because we’re getting results and we still haven’t hit full stride.”
The team hasn’t yet had a chance to play with its full first-choice forward lineup. Forwards Mackenzie Carson and Matt Raymond both started the year with injuries - Raymond made his debut last weekend and Carson is likely to play this weekend against Estevan. Not long before Raymond got the go-ahead to play, leading scorer Jaeden Mercier went down with an injury that could take him out of the lineup until December.
The coach says having a full-health lineup could have benefited the team during some of their tighter games, specifically in their matchup with Estevan earlier this season. The Bombers led through 40 minutes, but three third-period goals by the Bruins gave the maroon-and-white a 3-1 L.
“To win some of the bigger games that we dropped… I think of the 3-1 loss to Estevan and they’re on a pretty good heater right now, we probably deserved to win that game. If we played a full 60 minutes and protected a 1-0 lead into the third period, we’re sitting there with two points and 3-1 on the road trip. That makes a big difference,” Reagan said.
The team is now in the midst of a five-game homestand, which is already off to a good start. The Bombers won their opening games against Melfort and Notre Dame and play the Bruins twice this coming weekend, finishing up the homestand with a game against Nipawin early next week. Reagan says the home games will give the team an opportunity to gain ground in the standings and prove they belong at the top of the table.
“We’ve got to win. We want to be 4-1 or 3-2, anything like that. We know we’ve got tough games, but I think this will be a real test of our resolve,” he said.
Through the first third of the season, the Bombers have shown some things - a deep forward core, a solid two-way defensive group, quality goaltending from Cal Schell, who is firmly entrenched in the race for the league’s goalie of the year award. That said, Reagan isn’t satisfied and said some players and games haven’t fit with his vision of the team and what he feels “Bomber hockey” should be.
“There’s a certain way I want our team to play. There's the team play and the way individuals play and I don’t think we’re 100 per cent playing the way I want us to play. I think we need to be a heavier team to play against - I think Raymond will add to that. I want us to be tougher to play against,” he said.
“I think there are certain individuals who need to play the Bomber way and there’s certain guys who are taking a bit longer than others - at the end of the day, you give them opportunities and I’m a big believer in opportunities being what you make of them.”
The coach hammered home that this style of hard-nosed hockey could mean either squeezing extra play from players on the team or looking elsewhere for an extra piece or two to bolster the roster.
“The Bombers are not going to change the way we want to play for any individual. It’s up to the players to decide if they want to play the Bomber way. I think there’s one or two moves to be made before I’ll be 100 per cent happy with the way we want to play as a team,” he said.
“We need to decide as a staff whether we continue to be patient with some individuals or whether we go out and find the guys that are going to get the job done. That's the tough thing about being a coach - you’ve got to separate the personal side of things with having to do a job. That can be the most difficult part of my job, to build relationships with these young men and you care about them as individuals, but at the end of the day, we want to play a certain way and it's my job to find 25 guys that are going to play that way and 20 guys that are going to do that when they're in the lineup.”