Hitmen loving 'dog tag

SCOTT FISHER

, Last Updated: 10:10 AM ET

The Hitmen have gone from underdogs to junkyard dogs.

The Brandon Wheat Kings will go into Game 1 of the WHL Eastern Conference semifinal tonight (6:30 p.m., The Fan 960) as prohibitive favourites.

But Calgary has shown it's willing to fight for every scrap of respect.

It worked out pretty well in Round 1 against the Kootenay Ice.

"That's fine with us," says defenceman Karl Alzner. "We were underdogs in the first round and we surprised a lot of people.

"Hopefully they'll think they have this series in the bag."

Brandon beat the Hitmen in three of four regular-season meetings, which may mean absolutely nothing -- the Ice won six of eight against Calgary before bowing out in a thrilling seven-game series that took overtime to decide.

"We had a bad record against Brandon and we had a bad record against Kootenay," Alzner says. "But that doesn't mean much now."

Especially with his team coming off two of its finest efforts of the season.

The Hitmen will face a squad very similar to the one they just sent to the golf course, a club that prefers to play firewagon hockey.

"Their offence is so dominant," Alzner says. "And their powerplay is unbelievable.

"So Alex (Plante) and I are going to have a big responsibility to keep a close watch on those guys."

Brandon boasts the league's third-best offence (Kootenay was No. 1) and the second-most potent powerplay.

Alzner and Co. will pay special attention to forwards Codey Burki (36 goals and 85 points) and Mark Derlego (46 goals and 81 points).

Derlego sniped a league-high 24 powerplay goals.

"We can't be taking penalties," Alzner said.

"We've played a couple of games (against Kootenay) where we got a little careless.

"But I think both teams have two high-powered lines, a solid defence and our goaltending is pretty even.

"We're pretty much the same team, they just had a better record (in the season)."

The Hitmen received a big boost in Game 6 of the opening round when Plante and centre Riley Merkley returned from lengthy injuries.

Although rookies Brendan Rowinski and Devon Kalinski performed admirably in the first five games, Hitmen GM/head coach Kelly Kisio was happy to have Merkley and fellow veteran Ryan Letts back on the fourth line.

"They're just solid," Alzner says. "With the experience they have, they can play solid minutes.

"They were out so long but the energy and emotion they brought really helped us."

The weary Hitmen spent all of yesterday on the bus to Brandon but Alzner says they'll be ready to go when the puck drops tonight.

"The first game is real easy to get up for," he said.


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