The Wheatland Kings officially wrapped up their 2022-23 regular season last weekend, and now their attention turns to their first round playoff matchup against the Coaldale Copperheads. The Kings enjoyed some late season success and head into the playoffs with momentum, which is a far cry from where they were at the start of the season.

The first half of the season is best summarized with a 10 game losing streak spanning September 24 - October 29. It goes without saying that a 10 game losing streak is quite telling of a team being unable to put it together and struggling to get results on the ice, but even during these times Kings General Manager Lee Smith said the building blocks were being put in place for a young roster learning how to adapt to Junior B hockey.

"I think they (the rookies) had to really understand that it is a big step and the Heritage Junior Hockey League is one of the best junior leagues in Alberta for sure, if not in the country, so it was a big step for a lot of these guys and a lot of these guys had their eyes opened when they first got here, but now they're all seasoned and they're doing very well," he said. 

To go from looking like one of the worst teams in the league to knocking off the Okotoks Carstar Bisons and Medicine Hat Cubs is quite the turnaround, but Smith said that was always the expectation, even during their difficult start.

"The expectations have always been quite high for this team. It's a young team and we had the utmost confidence that we're going to do well throughout the whole season." 

What sparked such a dramatic midseason turnaround? While several factors go into a team's success, perhaps none were bigger than the coaching change midway through the season when the Kings brought in Head Coach Doug Raycroft after their 8-2 loss to Medicine Hat on October 23. Since then, the team has gone 15-10, including a 5-1 record to end the season.

"He's a really good hockey guy, he's a teacher. He knows how to get across to the players and that's been the biggest thing. The players bought in, that was the key implement, the hardest thing to do is to try and win when players aren't bought in."

The culture change Raycroft brought in was much needed, as he pulled a team mired in losing out of their lowest point and has taken them into a position where they're favoured to win their first round playoff matchup against the Coaldale Copperheads.

"Doug's leadership and guidance has been second to none. Without him, I think the season probably wouldn't be as successful as it has been."

The Kings ended their season 18-18-2 with 38 points, placing them ahead of Coaldale (31 points) and behind the Cochrane Generals (49 points). Even though the gap between the Kings and Generals is quite big, Smith believes the Kings are playing better than their record, considering they had to overcome a 10 game losing streak and claw their way back up the standings.

"We are one of the better teams in this league and we've just got to believe in ourselves and we've got to believe in the system and that we can do it." 

Before the team worries about any other opponents, they'll have to take on the Copperheads first. Even though the Kings are above them in the standings, Smith said they'll be a tough first round opponent and the Kings can't afford to look past them and think of future potential playoff matchups.

"We can't take them for granted, they're a really good hockey club and home ice was crucial for this series because it's very hard to play in Coaldale, it's a different barn down there for sure. We'll have our hands full with them."

Smith also gave a huge shoutout of appreciation to the fans who supported the Kings throughout the highs and lows of the season, and hopes to see the Strathmore Family Centre packed for their first game of the playoff series!

The first of the best-of-three series against Coaldale will take place in Strathmore at 8:00 p.m. this Thursday (February 16).

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