As the final buzzer sounded Saturday night at Western Financial Place, everyone in attendance rose to their feet with a hearty roar and appreciative applause.
And with good reason.
After flirting with victory and showing signs of a team turning the corner, the Kootenay Ice put forth a complete, 60-minute effort en route to shutting out the high-powered, Central Division-leading Lethbridge Hurricanes by a 2-0 margin Saturday night in Cranbrook.
“I’m just proud of the group, we did so many little things well,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Kootenay Ice, following Saturday night’s triumph. “Right from Hoff out, I thought guys played hard. Our leaders, our veterans were outstanding.
“It was 60 solid minutes of hockey. I just kind of let our guys take it over, I really didn’t say a whole lot between periods. I said nothing going into the third, just, ‘Let’s go finish it off.’ Again, our leaders really showed the way and played smart hockey. We defended very well.”
Between the pipes, 21-year-old Wyatt Hoflin pitched a 31-save shutout, putting an exclamation point on the 150th appearance of his WHL career.
From start to finish, the cool and calm veteran was exactly that in the blue paint, setting the tone for his club as he collected his second shutout of the season, and fifth of his four-year WHL career.
“He was so focused tonight. Before the game, he was out in the hallway on his own and you could tell, really dialled in,” Pierce said of Hoflin. “I would imagine there are a lot of other goalies in his age bracket on a team like this that’s obviously been struggling and you could easily stop worrying about your performances.
“He’s a very proud kid and you could tell he wanted it. I think that leaked out into our whole team today.”
Friday night, the native of Spruce Grove, Alta., surpassed 8,000 minutes played in his career, becoming only the third goaltender in franchise history to do so. Saturday, by reaching the 150-game mark, he became only the second goaltender in franchise history to hit that plateau.
“We’ve given up a lot of goals lately, so to give up none against the best team in the Central Division right now, it’s a big confidence for our team,” Hoflin said Saturday.
“They really didn’t have a lot 5-on-5, a couple in-tight plays that I had to make the save on. But it was basically our penalty kill that gave us success today.”
The first period went into the books as a scoreless draw, with both clubs earning their share of chances as the Hurricanes carried a 15-13 advantage in shots after 20 minutes of play.
After both squads exchanged power-play opportunities and came up empty-handed in the opening 20 minutes, it was the 22nd-ranked Kootenay Ice man advantage that struck first.
A long point shot from power-play quarterback Jesse Zaharichuk was turned aside by Hurricanes goaltender Jayden Sittler, but parked on the doorstep to put the rebound home was pesky River Beattie.
“I was a little lucky, it was a great forecheck by Alfaro,” Beattie said. “The puck went up to Zaharichuk and found me alone in front of the net. I was able to slide one past Sittler.
“I thought we generated a lot off our forecheck and were able to play in their zone for most of the game. That’s huge for a team with that much offense. If we’re in their zone, they can’t generate much on us.”
Beattie’s tally, his fifth of the campaign, was the only one to go on the board in the second period as the Ice carried a 1-0 advantage into the final 20 minutes of play.
Ice fans had seen this movie before, in fact, they’d seen it as recently as Tuesday night in a 6-3 loss to the Edmonton Oil Kings — a strong 40 minutes of play and carrying a lead into the third period.
Saturday, rather than forget what gave them success in the opening 40 minutes, the Kootenay Ice completed the task and shut things down in the third period.
Perhaps the biggest statistic of the night, as pointed out by Pierce, was the fact the hosts limited the visiting Hurricanes to a mere six shots in the final 20 minutes of regulation.
“We kept them to the outside,” Hoflin said. “Our defence tied up the guy in front, which has been a problem for us. Our offence tracking back through the middle and protecting the house for us is something we didn’t do [Friday against Red Deer] but we were very good at today. That’s what we need moving forward.”
For the second consecutive night, Beattie got into the mix by dropping the mitts.
After colliding with Hurricanes defenceman Kord Pankewicz in Lethbridge territory during the third period, the two continued to jaw before finally scrapping to settle the score. It was a short-lived bout, but both contestants took a couple swings before falling to the ice.
“There’s obviously a lot of emotion involved in the game,” Beattie said. “Things escalate and what it comes down to is you want to win.”
Midway through the period, Matt Alfaro stripped a Hurricanes defender of the puck in Lethbridge territory, leaving himself with nothing but open space to walk in on Sittler. A quick move to the backhand and the Lethbridge goaltender was down and out, with Alfaro sliding a much-needed insurance marker to the back of the cage.
Shortly after Alfaro’s 16th of the season gave the Ice a 2-0 advantage, the Hurricanes were off to the man advantage after Shane Allan sent an errant puck out of play in his own end of the rink, leading to a delay of game penalty.
It was the last man-advantage opportunity of the night for the WHL’s top-ranked power play, but there was nothing doing for the visitors.
“With our kill, it was just simple,” Pierce said. “We kind of packed it in and made them shoot through us and tried to let Hoff see as much as he could. But it’s the number [of penalties] that you take — three or less is the magic number for us.”
When the final buzzer sounded, the Hurricanes lethal power play was 0-for-3, while the Ice converted on 1-for-5.
While Hoflin was stellar in net for the hosts, at the other end, Sittler — the former Ice goaltender — did an admirable job as well.
The 20-year-old Red Deer native made 31 saves on the 33 shots sent his way.
With the win, the Kootenay Ice (9-40-4-0) snapped a 10-game winless streak, while the loss dropped the division-leading Lethbridge Hurricanes to 37-16-0-0.
“This is a huge confidence builder for us,” Beattie said. “We just need to keep moving forward and keeping building off how we played tonight.”
Next up for the Ice is a Wednesday date with the Tri-City Americans (23-25-2-1) slated for 7 p.m. at Western Financial Place. The Hurricanes return home to host the Saskatoon Blades (18-30-4-0) Wednesday night at Enmax Place in Lethbridge.
Daily Townsman Three Stars 1) #30 Wyatt Hoflin, Kootenay Ice (31 saves, shutout; 150th career WHL appearance) 2) #25 River Beattie, Kootenay Ice (1G, fight)3) #21 Matt Alfaro, Kootenay Ice (1G, 1A, plus-1)
Notes: The Kootenay Ice scratched D Mario Grman and RW Vince Loschiavo Saturday night, with RW Jaedon Descheneau (shoulder) also unavailable… Ice RW Austin Gray made his first appearance after missing six games due to a concussion… Hurricanes D Kord Pankewicz skated in the 200th game of his WHL career… Hurricanes RW Colton Kroeker skated in his 100th career WHL contest… Announced attendance Saturday in Cranbrook was 1,985…