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Ice upset Hitmen to advance in WHL playoffs
Win for Tim.
In a game fill with emotion on Saturday night, the Kootenay Ice certainly did that, beating the Calgary Hitmen 5-3 to close out the first round of the playoffs with a 4-2 series win.
Tim Bozon, who made a triumphant return to his WHL team, received a standing ovation from a crowd of 3,916 in a pre-game ceremonial puck drop. The Ice forward was officially discharged from hospital in Saskatoon on Friday a month after being diagnosed with meningitis.
After the final buzzer sounded and the handshake procession ended, the Kootenay players gathered at centre ice to salute the crowd and Bozon, who was up in one of the luxury boxes.
"It was emotional, for sure," said Jaedon Descheneau. "When we saw him this morning for the meeting, it was full of hugs and joy and I was so happy to see him, knowing he is better and he's okay and he's just going to make progress from here.
"Seeing him come out onto the ice to drop the puck, I definitely had to hold it back...he inspired us to go forward in this series and win and he was a big part of that."
See the Daily Townsman later this week for a feature story on Bozon and his road to recovery.
The Ice now advance to the second round of the post-season for the first time since they won the league championship in 2011, and will play the Medicine Hat Tigers, which overcame the Swift Current Broncos in six games with a 2-1 win in Game Six.
"It feels absolutely amazing," said Jagger Dirk, an overage defenceman who was on the championship-winning team. "We haven't won a playoff series in a long time and for the guys who are first- and second-year in—especially against Calgary with that history and rivalry we have—it's just a huge boost to our confidence and we feel great going into the next series."
As was the case all series, the Hitmen just couldn't find a way to contain the top line from the Ice, as Descheneau, Zach Franko and Sam Reinhart terrorized the Calgary defensive corps.
Descheneau and Reinhart share the lead for the WHL post-season scoring race with 17 points each, while Franko sits in fifth overall at nine points.
"They were key, they were huge," said Ice head coach Ryan McGill. "The strength they possess down low in the offensive zone, and even in the defensive zone and coming through the neutral zone with the puck and how they move the puck with each other—they were tremendous.
"They're not big guys, but they play with big hearts and they move their feet, and they were great for us and hopefully that will continue."
Descheneau posted a hat trick, while Franko notched a goal and Reinhart got helpers on three of them. Austin Vetterl also tallied for his first career playoff goal.
Wyatt Hoflin was given the start, turning away 36 shots for his second straight playoff win.
Brady Brassart, Adam Tambellini and Radel Fazleev responded for the Hitmen, all coming in a desperate third-period pushback that ultimately failed. Calgary goaltender Chris Driedger gave up four goals in 38 shots.
After Bozon dropped the puck with Reinhart and Hitmen captain Jaynen Rissling at centre ice, the Calgary bench emptied as all the players made the rounds to shake hands with their WHL comrade.
In a series chock full of wild back-and-forth scoring, the first period was the only period over the six games that didn't include a goal. The Hitmen had the edge in shots, while getting two cracks at the powerplay, which they were unable to capitalize on.
The Ice took the lead less than two minutes into the second period, as Descheneau picked up a rebound and buried it. Eight minutes later, Franko doubled Kootenay up, getting a tip on a point shot from Dirk.
Kootenay struck early again in the third period, with Vetterl redirecting a blistering slap shot from Rinat Valiev at the blue line.
Only a couple minutes later, Brassart beat Hoflin off the rush on the wing to put Calgary's first goal up on the scoreboard.
But Descheneau soon put it back to a three-goal cushion on Kootenay's red-hot powerplay, scooping up the puck off a tipped shot from the blue line and stuffing it home.
Carrying a 4-1 lead going into the final five minutes seemed like a sure thing for the Ice.
Considering how the series had gone, maybe not such a sure thing after all.
With just over four minutes left on the clock, Driedger headed to the bench for the extra attacker and Tambellini was rewarded with a goal. Seventy-two seconds later, Fazleev put a weak shot on net that snuck in on the corner to make it a one-goal differential with 2:26 remaining in the game.
With Calgary within striking distance of tying up the game at the eleventh hour, McGill said his players simply took charge of their newfound situation.
"Everybody on the bench took over, it wasn't even me," said McGill. "It was them knowing that we'd given up enough and we knew that we just needed to relax, go out and win a face-off and just manage the puck properly, and the guys did it."
For the Hitmen, it was simply too little, too late.
In the final minute, Descheneau was able to get the puck into Calgary territory and pot his third of the night into an empty cage to put the game out of reach.