Get tough or go home

CAMERON MAXWELL -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 12:25 PM ET

Most junior hockey pundits agree the Calgary Hitmen boast one of the more skilled lineups in the WHL. But critics maintain the club might not be tough enough, physically or mentally, when push comes to shove.

Over the past two weeks, the Hitmen have twice blown leads in the dying seconds against top-flight WHL teams, Kootenay and Lethbridge.

While nobody wants those types of breakdowns, Hitmen co-coach Dean Evason said they're all part of the learning process that'll make his charges mentally tougher for the playoffs.

"I think the regular season's a dress-rehearsal for the playoffs and we've been in a lot of tight hockey games where we've let some leads slip away and we've held some leads," Evason said after practice yesterday at the Corral.

"If you can learn from your experiences as a group, good and bad, and have those good memories in the bank, we'll be fine going into the playoffs."

The past two games -- a 3-2 loss in Lethbridge and a 2-1 triumph over Medicine Hat -- are clear cut examples of blowing a lead one day then hanging on for the 'W' the next.

"After Lethbridge, we talked about it, we showed the guys what happened on video and we relived it the next day then we let it go. You want to learn from that situation but you don't want to dwell on it,"said Evason.

"We want to be as even-keeled as we possibly can."

With the Hitmen off until Tuesday's tilt against Kootenay in Cranbrook, the club is doing some team bonding in Crowsnest Pass tomorrow and Monday.

As they race around on snowmobiles and do some other outdoor activities, the lads will hone their off-ice chemistry.

Andrew Ladd said he's seeing more and more examples of his teammates sticking up for each other on the ice.

"There's two types of toughness. There's the fighting and how we play in sticking up for each other -- playing tough -- and I think we've established that as a group for the last half of the season," said Ladd, who leads the Hitmen with 159 penalty minutes and always leads the charge when it comes to defending a teammate.

"We've established that other teams can't do certain stuff to our guys and, if they do, they've got to expect someone's going to come after them."

One guy the Hitmen have missed in the toughness department lately is rugged rearguard Darryl Yacboski, who has been nursing a sore shoulder.

But the 6-ft. 3-in. 223-pounder could be back against the Ice.

"We've got a lot of offensive guys on the team but my role is to be more physically tough and if I do my job every night, then it creates a lot of room for our forwards and skilled players," said Yacboski.


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