Though it required a little bit of Matt Alfaro magic, the Kootenay Ice have won back-to-back games for the first time in the 2015-16 Western Hockey League season.
With 1:58 to go in a 1-1 tie and with his club working diligently to kill off a five-minute charging major to Shane Allan, Alfaro forced a turnover at the Ice blue-line before breaking in alone on Swift Current Broncos goaltender Landon Bow.
With miles of open space, the 19-year-old Alfaro made no mistake as he beat the Broncos netminder to snap the 1-1 draw and help push the Kootenay Ice (6-16-2-0) to a 2-1 victory over Swift Current (8-14-2-0) Saturday night at Western Financial Place.
“I wasn’t thinking [scoring opportunity] — I was thinking just get the puck out, maybe get a stick on it and get a good break and get it the other way,” Alfaro said Saturday. “Luckily, I got it on my stick for a breakaway.
“I saw the goalie come far out and knew I couldn’t shoot. I knew I had to get around him.
“I’m not one to do big celebrations or anything, but there, I couldn’t help myself.”
For the second night in a row, the Ice claimed a 2-1 victory late in the proceedings — Friday’s 2-1 win coming in overtime against the Moose Jaw Warriors.
While Alfaro provided Saturday’s late-game heroics on the offensive side of the puck, rookie goaltender Declan Hobbs was rock solid at the other end of the rink, turning aside 27 pucks as he collected his first-career WHL victory.
“It feels good to get that first one out of the way and hopefully there’s more to come,” Hobbs said Saturday. “It takes a load off my shoulders and I can feel better in the net now.
“It’s good to get these two wins on the weekend here.
“We got these wins because we played a lot more structured and we had a lot more work ethic in these games than we did before. If we continue to do that, we’re just going to keep getting better and better.”
The victory pulls the Ice back to within striking distance of the fifth-place Medicine Hat Tigers in the WHL’s Central Division while others around the league may have already written off Luke Pierce’s squad, the Kootenay bench boss was pleased with two emotional victories and still has his sights set on getting his club to an 18th consecutive post-season appearance.
“It’s nice to get a win without going to overtime today,” Pierce said Saturday. “We can’t keep giving points away to teams ahead of us in the standings. People might think — what are you talking about, standings?
“It matters to us. We believe we’ve got an opportunity to work ourselves back to a playoff spot. You have to start stringing wins together.”
Fans in Cranbrook were once again treated to a nail-biting contest Saturday night.
The visiting Broncos opened the scoring 9:03 into the first period as import left wing Andreas Schumacher redirected a point shot from defenceman Jayden Gordon to fool Hobbs.
Not even five minutes wound down on the clock after Schumacher’s opening tally before captain Luke Philp came to the rescue.
With the puck at the half wall on the far side of the ice, Kootenay’s leading scorer made a quick spin move to evade a defender before driving the net and finding a puck-sized hole in Bow. It took its sweet time, but the rubber eventually trickled over the goal line to tie the game 1-1 and that’s how it remained until Alfaro struck.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, the veteran Bow had turned in a 22-save effort.
Fans were treated to the most exciting play in hockey Saturday night.
With less than two minutes remaining in the second period, Broncos forward Cavin Leth was hauled down and immediately awarded a penalty shot.
Skating wide right into the zone, the 19-year-old product of Taber, Alta., tried to pull the puck to the far side, only to meet the outstretched right pad of Hobbs, who made it look all too easy.
“I couldn’t be happier for the guy tonight to finally get that [first win],” Pierce said of his rookie goaltender. “We haven’t given him a lot of run support. He knows how good he’s got to be.
“We talked after last game — [a 2-0 loss to Everett] and I know he was really frustrated with the loss — but just try not to do too much and steal games. Just give us a chance to win and eventually we’ll win one for you.
“He’s just so calm and composed right now.”
Saturday’s game was a physical encounter with both teams playing heavy hockey.
In the first period, Broncos left wing Conner Chaulk caught Ice defenceman Tanner Lishchynsky in a dangerous spot, checking the 20-year-old veteran heavily into the corner boards.
Perhaps not the first responder most might expect, rookie left wing Jared Legien came to the aide of his alternate captain, dropping the mitts and throwing Chaulk to the ice after the two exchange a few blows.
After serving a two-minute instigator, five-minute fighting major and a 10-minute misconduct, the native of Pilot Butte, Sask., returned and continued to exercise the physical element of his game, throwing a heavy check that laid out a Broncos defender in the corner during third-period play.
Finally, the biggest hit of the night came late in the third period as rookie Ice centre Shane Allan caught Tyler Steenbergen in unsuspecting in the high slot.
Steenbergen remained down and needed help off the ice following the check and Allan was assessed a five-minute major for charging. Allan’s penalty left the Ice shorthanded, eventually leading to Alfaro’s game-winning effort.
While Steenbergen’s exit from the ice was a bit unnerving, it was preceded by a scary sequence involving Philp.
Working towards the net, the 20-year-old Ice captain was knocked to the ice, his legs tangled in the process.
Not one to stay down, Philp was unable to get off the ice without assistance. He did not return to the contest and later left Western Financial Place on crutches and wearing a walking boot.
“I don’t want to speculate on it, but obviously it’s not good when he can’t initially put any weight on it,” Pierce said. “It’s lower body. It’s swollen. We should be getting some results back even tonight.
“But his effort today is exactly what we need. After the game, he has an ice pack on two different spots on his body.
“Those are warrior plays and we need more of that.”
While Philp’s status is still to be determined, the Ice will look to grab a third consecutive win Wednesday evening when they host the Red Deer Rebels (16-7-0-0) at Western Financial Place.
Notes: The Ice went without D Tyler King (knee), RW Jaedon Descheneau (shoulder surgery), RW Zak Zborosky (lower body), RW River Beattie (head) and D Jason Wenzel (headaches) Saturday… Ice D Troy Murray returned after serving a two-game suspension… Former Ice forward Jon Martin made his first return to Cranbrook, collecting a lone assist on Schumacher’s goal… The Broncos are also bruised, playing without D Jordan Harris, C Glenn Gawdin (undisclosed injury), LW Jake DeBrusk (lower body, one to two weeks) and RW Brandan Arnold (suspension)… The loss for Swift Current sent the Broncos home winless (0-6-0-0) on their recent road trip… 2,329 was the announced attendance at Western Financial Place Saturday night…