When injuries mount, it’s easy to focus on what’s missing from the picture and all too often what’s forgotten is the added responsibility and bigger roles taken on by those left to shoulder the load.
Veteran centre Matt Alfaro is doing more heavy lifting for the Kootenay Ice in recent days.
With captain Luke Philp and alternate captain Jaedon Descheneau — both key cogs in the leadership machine for the Ice – out of the lineup due to injury this past weekend (not to mention alternate captain Troy Murray in the stands due to a two-game suspension) Alfaro was sporting a fresh new ‘A’ on his sweater Tuesday night with defenceman Tanner Lishchynsky the lone alternate still available.
“Since the beginning of the year when coach and I talked, we talked about the assistant captains and I wouldn’t have a [letter],” the 19-year-old Alfaro said Thursday prior to practice at Western Financial Place. “I said it doesn’t really affect me, it doesn’t really matter.
“I know I am [a leader]. Tuesday, I happened to be wearing a letter. I know when the guys come back off the IR and they get their letters back, I know I’m still a leader in the dressing room. It doesn’t matter what’s on my sweater.”
With Descheneau not expected back as he is set to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery at the end of November, the Ice will forge ahead without his 265 games of WHL experience, leaving plenty of room for Alfaro and his 159-game resume to step in and assume added responsibility on a more regular basis.
“I thought Matt played the best game of his time with me here on Saturday night in Medicine Hat,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Kootenay Ice, Thursday.
“He’s going to be the guy we need to lean on. He showed some qualities in his game that night that are really encouraging. He’s starting to be more of a positive influence with our guys and pushing people, holding them accountable.
“Matt Alfaro is going to be a big part of this team moving forward and into next year. It’s a good time for him to start to act like a leader of our club, because he certainly is one.”
Through 22 games to start the 2015-16 WHL campaign, Alfaro has tallied three goals and seven points (0.32 points per game), sitting third in team scoring.
If history is any indicator, an upswing in Alfaro’s offensive output could well be on the way.
In 2014-15, the native of Calgary posted two goals and four points through his first 22 games (0.18 points per game), before finishing the season with 13 goals and 33 points in 72 games (0.46 points per game). That output represented brand-new career highs in goals, assists (20) and points for Alfaro.
With 29 points over the final 50 games of the 2014-15 regular season, the 6-foot-2, 194-pound pivot was producing at an efficient clip (0.58 points per game) as he helped the Ice dig out of an early season hole and push forward to a 17th consecutive playoff appearance.
With the 2015-16 edition of the Ice in a bit of a rut, sitting last in the WHL’s Eastern Conference and 11 points out of a wildcard playoff spot, an upwards trend from Alfaro is needed once again.
“From an offensive standpoint, I think everybody was trying to be a little too complicated [early on],” Pierce said. “Matt’s more of a playmaking type of guy. We’ve lacked some finish in that secondary unit, so that’s probably a large part of [his start]. But he’s made some improvements on the defensive side of the game, which have led to more offensive success as well.
“He’s got to be more of a complete player that way, where if he doesn’t have guys that are going to finish for him consistently, he has to contribute on the other side of the puck.
“He’s brought more intensity. He’s been physical. Those are the types of things that are going to lead to success for him.”
With the Moose Jaw Warriors in town Friday night, sparked by the electricity of captain Brayden Point — the leading scorer in the WHL — Alfaro’s defensive prowess will certainly be called upon as a depleted Ice lineup will prepare to shutdown Point as best they can.
“I’m logging more minutes, so I’ve got to keep my shifts short and involve my teammates, make my linemates better,” Alfaro said.
“The last time [the Warriors] played here, we got under his skin and shut [Point] out. We’ve got to keep doing what we did that game.”
While Point was injured Nov. 17 as the Warriors dropped a 4-1 road decision to the Prince Albert Raiders, Pierce and his charges are preparing as though they will be tasked with shutting down the 19-year-old prospect of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning.
“We’re going to approach the game that Brayden Point will be playing,” Pierce said. “He’s one of the top couple players in our league and you have to respect that. As a group, we have to be able to shut him down.
“They’re a pretty patient team. Similar to what we saw with Everett, we have to look to capitalize on the mistakes they do make and try not to force the game too much.”
Puck drop between the Ice and Warriors is slated for 7 p.m. at Western Financial Place.
Notes: After a two-game absence, captain Luke Philp (upper body) is expected back in the lineup Friday, barring any setbacks. Otherwise, the Ice will once again go without D Troy Murray (serving final game of two-game suspension), D Tyler King (knee, indefinite), D Jason Wenzel (headaches, day to day), RW Jaedon Descheneau (shoulder, four to six months), RW Zak Zborosky (lower body, week to week) and RW River Beattie (concussion)… F Eli Lieffers, 15, has been recalled from the Saskatoon Contacts (Saskatchewan Midget ‘AAA’) on an emergency basis and will make his WHL debut Friday night…