Dare we dream?

SCOTT FISHER -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:54 AM ET

It wasn't long ago you couldn't pick a Calgary Hitmen player out of a police lineup.

Now some say they're legitimate Memorial Cup contenders.

Stockpiling wins like a greedy chipmunk hoarding acorns for a long winter, Calgary's Western Hockey League team has gone about its business without much fanfare.

Veteran voices from around the league are saying the Hitmen -- ranked No. 3 in the country -- have what it takes to go the distance.

Calgary entered last night's game in Medicine Hat 38-12-1-0.

That's a 17-point improvement over the pace set by last year's squad. But, perhaps of more importance, the Hitmen are just three points shy of where the 1998-99 team was sitting after 51 games (37-8-6-0).

That star-studded squad, of course, went on to lose against the Ottawa 67's in triple overtime of the Memorial Cup final.

These two Hitmen squads are hardly mirror images of one another, says ex-Hitmen GM Carey Bracko, who played a large role in building the '98-99 WHL championship squad.

"They're definitely different types of teams, that's for sure," says Bracko. "But I think hockey, in general, is different. There's less offence right across the league. The Hitmen squads of that (late '90s) era were potent offensive machines. They were run-and-gun.

"Now, the Hitmen might not have as much offence up front.

"But they're big and strong. That's a gigantic D, they've got some large bodies on that team and they wear teams down ... And having (goaltender Justin) Pogge in net ... is a great equalizer."

The powerhouse '98-99 club, which placed five players on the Eastern Conference all-star team, featured Pavel Brendl and Brad Moran, who finished 1-2 in league scoring with

134 and 118 points respectively. The duo combined for 133 goals.

The current Hitmen, prior to last night, had scored 148 as a team.

Their offence scares nobody. Their defence is the envy of the league.

Kamloops Blazers coach Dean Clark, who was behind the bench with the powerful Hitmen teams of the late '90s, says the current club doesn't have the big names but it's getting the same results.

"We had some pretty elite guys on that team, with Brendl and Moran," Clark says.

"This team might not have that type of player. But they play a good game, they have a great goalie. They don't have a top-notch (scorer) but in today's game, if you play a good, solid game, you can win, especially if you've got good goaltending."

But are there enough weapons to go on a Memorial Cup run?

"That's tough to say," Clark says. "They have gamebreakers but they're just young. Ryan White and Brodie Dupont are great players. And they have an older defence, which you need in this league in order to be successful."

And they have the best goaltender in junior hockey.

Pogge leads the CHL in goals-against average and save percentage, backstopped Team Canada to a gold medal at the world junior championship and has doubled the franchise record for shutouts in a season.

Red Deer Rebels boss Brent Sutter watched Pogge post a record three goose- eggs at this year's world juniors as head coach of that gold medal-winning squad. Calgary's attention to defence, coupled with Pogge's play, makes the Hitmen legitimate Memorial Cup contenders, Sutter says.

"They've got a good hockey club," he says.

"The backbone of their team is their goaltender. But their defence is very good and they have some quality forwards.

"They gained confidence last year when they went to the (conference) semifinals and they've built off that."

Sutter, who believes defence wins championships, says Hitmen fans shouldn't be too concerned about the team's tepid offence.

When the checking gets tighter in the playoffs, defensively minded squads usually move on, Sutter points out.

"That ('98-99) Calgary team had a lot of top-end guys," Sutter says.

"But this team is a very good team in its own right. Look at their defence. (Jeff) Schultz, (Brett) Carson, just to name two of them, they're big guys and they've been together for over a year now.

"But let's face it. A big part of any team doing well is still your goaltending. Your team builds confidence around your goaltender."

Veteran Brandon GM Kelly McCrimmon, whose Wheat Kings eliminated Calgary from last year's playoffs in a seven-game second-round series, says the young Hitmen learned a lot last spring.

McCrimmon believes the Hitmen are among a group of a half-dozen teams that could claim the WHL title.

"Certainly, they could," McCrimmon says. "They gained good experience a year ago. There was a changing of the guard with some of their key players moving on. But they didn't jump the fence to be in contention, they've been a solid team from opening weekend.

"They're a first-place team in their division. But you have to put Moose Jaw and Saskatoon in that category. Medicine Hat, Vancouver, Kootenay and Everett have established themselves ... How can you count Kelowna out? They've been to the Memorial Cup the last two years. It's late January so I don't know if you can say any more than that."


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