Few expected that, at this point in the 2017/18 Western Hockey League season, the Vancouver Giants would be staring down a potentially deep playoff run.
The Giants, who finished their 2016/17 campaign at the bottom of the B.C. Division standings and in second last for the league, currently hold a very respectable 25-4-15 record. This puts the young team comfortably into a playoff position with just over two months to go in the regular season.
“I think we’ve come together as a group throughout the first few months here and we’re a much better team,” says Giants head coach Jason McKee. “We’re getting consistent goaltending and some timely goal scoring. Our special teams have been fairly constant here over the last couple of months. When you add it all up you’ve got a lot of things going in the right direction, and for us the challenge will be to continue to get better at it and continue to grow as a group here.”
At the centre of the Giants’ run from bottom feeders to serious contenders is goaltender David Tendeck. The 18-year-old North Vancouver native started the season sharing the top spot in net with Todd Scott but quickly distinguished himself with a series of excellent performances. The stability that Tendeck has provided for the Giants led the team to deal Scott to the Edmonton Oil Kings in December, firmly positioning Tendeck as the team’s number-one netminder.
Despite his calm, collected presence on the ice, Tendeck says gaining confidence in his newly earned role is still his top focus going forward.
“I think [for me] it’s just confidence,” said Tendeck, after the Giants’ 2-0 loss to the Portland Winterhawks on Jan. 20, during which Tendeck stopped 25 of 26 shots. In the future, he wants to focus on “playing more and more games in this league, getting more comfortable, and seeing more stuff happen before [his] eyes.”
Tendeck credits a tight, stable game by the Giants’ defense as another important factor in his impressive 0.912 save percentage.
“The boys are playing really well right now. They’re doing the right things, blocking shots, and making my job a little easier,” says Tendeck.
Indeed, the Giants’ defence has improved remarkably since last season, when the team struggled to control the puck in their own end. The addition of veteran defenceman Brennan Riddle, as well as a coaching focus on improving defensive systems, has resulted in a stable Vancouver blueline.
Moving forward, McKee says the team needs to stay on track by paying attention to the small details and habits of their game and maintaining their current attitude.
“If you show up at the rink with a good energy and a good work ethic and you practice the right way, you’re just naturally going to continue to get better as an individual and a group,” says McKee.
It’s not exactly a groundbreaking philosophy, but holding onto that intensity is what showed the WHL that this team has something to prove. After Saturday’s scoreless loss to the Winterhawks, McKee noted that the team lacked the energy that got them to the point of playoff contention. The Giants failed to create scoring chances against Portland by moving the puck to the offensive end, relying instead on dump-and-chase tactics.
The loss showed how small the margin for error is, and will continue to be, for this team moving into the playoffs.
“[After the game] we talked about the battle of attrition, doing the right things the whole time. The team that’s able to do that is usually the team that ends up winning the game,” said McKee, following the Giants’ loss to Portland.
If the Giants manage to keep the momentum going throughout the final two months of the season, they just might have their best shot in a decade at winning a second WHL championship.