If you ask Kootenay Ice head coach Luke Pierce to talk about the impact of 20-year-old Luke Philp, he will tell you the play of his captain has been nothing short of inspirational to this point in the season.
With the crafty centreman not expected back until January after undergoing surgery on his right ankle, the Ice will be looking to him for a different sort of motivation as they fight to get back into the WHL’s Eastern Conference playoff picture.
“It’s the most cliche thing in the world — you don’t replace those guys — everybody needs to be just a little bit better,” Pierce said of losing Philp. “But the one thing for us is you’ve got to find a way to make it inspirational.
“I said to our guys, ‘What kind of team do you want to welcome him back to? Do we want to welcome him back to a team that’s fighting and staying alive? Or a group that’s rolled over and died?'”
In the short term, the Ice are fighting and staying alive — winners of two consecutive games this past weekend.
With the Central Division-leading Red Deer Rebels (16-7-0-0) visiting Cranbrook Wednesday night, the Ice (6-16-2-0) will look to make it three in a row.
Former first-round pick Jared Legien is hoping he can do his part to step up and have a bigger impact with his captain out of the lineup.
After scoring his first-career WHL goal Nov. 14 in Medicine Hat, the 17-year-old native of Pilot Butte, Sask., mixed it up by getting into his first WHL scrap Saturday against Swift Current Broncos centre Conner Chaulk.
“If I can keep putting the puck in the net and keep laying big hits, I’ll do anything to help our team win,” Legien said Tuesday prior to practice at Western Financial Place. “[Philp] is obviously a huge part of our team. It will take a lot to fill his spot, but if each person chips in, hopefully we’ll be able to make up for what we lost.”
After serving a grand total of 17 minutes in penalties for his part in the brouhaha — a two-minute minor paired with a 10-minute misconduct for instigating and the standard five-minute fighting major — Legien returned to the ice and continued imposing his 6-foot-1, 195-pound frame on the opposition.
“We’re not the most physical team, so every night I go out there and try to lay a hit — our motto is lay a hit a shift,” Legien said. “If you can lay one big hit a game, that helps our team.”
With six regular skaters expected out of the lineup due to injury, coupled with the four-game suspension of forward Shane Allan for a charging major incurred Saturday against the Broncos, there’s plenty of opportunity for players to step into bigger roles and take on bigger minutes.
“It’s a great opportunity to get a little bit more experience,” Pierce said. “But at the same time, they’ve got to be really smart about how they go about it because it can also damage you a little bit if you really, really struggle with increased minutes and opportunity. It can hurt you going forward.
“They have to be responsible and not try to play too far over their heads and give us good, quality, safe minutes. We’ve got to find ways to eke things out here.”
The injury list seemingly grows with each passing game in Cranbrook. Heading into Wednesday’s mid-week matchup, the Ice will be without defencemen Tyler King (knee, indefinite) and Jason Wenzel (head, day to day) as well as an overwhelming group of forwards, including Philp (ankle, indefinite), right wing Jaedon Descheneau (shoulder, four to six months), right wing Zak Zborosky (lower body, week to week) and right wing River Beattie (head, one to two weeks).
“It’s a lot of bodies,” Pierce said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything like it in my time. You look at the league, there are a lot of teams dealing with similar things.
“It’s adversity, but we can come out of it on the other side, hopefully a better team.”
With affiliate forward Eli Lieffers returning home to Saskatoon following a two-game stint over the weekend, the Ice have recalled 17-year-old forward Connor Barley from the Selkirk Steelers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
Following Wednesday’s tilt with the Rebels, the Ice visit the Lethbridge Thursday evening before returning home for a rematch with the Hurricanes Saturday night.
Puck drop between the Ice and Rebels is slated for 7 p.m. at Western Financial Place.
“They’re a good team,” Legien said. “We just need to shoot the puck, lay the body, get on them hard and fast and come out strong. They’re a good team, so we need to maybe catch them by surprise off the start and get on them early.”