Hockey fans in Cranbrook and Calgary were privy to a little first-round playoff preview this weekend as the Ice and Hitmen went head-to-head in a home-and-home set to wrap up the 2014-15 WHL season.
The Hitmen chewed out two nail-biting victories — 2-1 Friday in Cranbrook and 3-2 Sunday in Calgary — to claim the WHL’s Central Division title and set up a first-round playoff matchup with the Ice.
“We’re trying to finish the season strong and obviously they’re fighting for position in the standings,” said Kootenay Ice goaltender Wyatt Hoflin Friday night. “It’s also that Calgary-Kootenay rivalry that always seems to come out.
“They took it to us good in the second period. Turnovers, lapses in our ‘D’ zone cost us.”
Holfin did all he could Friday, turning aside 29 of 31 shots directed his way, including a jaw-dropper in the second period to keep his team within two goals.
A pair of second-period goals by Loch Morrison and Jordy Stallard couldn’t be pinned on Hoflin as the Hitmen outshot the hosts 19-4 in the middle period.
“We lost it a bit in the second there,” said Kootenay Ice forward Luke Philp Friday. “We did have a good push in the third, in the end we did come close. It was a pretty hard-fought game out there by both teams. Things are starting to really ramp up.
“Every game now is pretty well close to a playoff game…every game is going to have that playoff-like atmosphere out there.”
It was a goaltending battle of sorts Friday night, as starter Brendan Burke did his part to keep the Hitmen in it during a first period in which the Ice outshot the visitors 13-5.
The 20-year-old puck-stopper turned aside 29 of the 30 shots sent his way, en route to a first-star performance.
The only man to beat Burke was 20-year-old Tim Bozon.
With time winding down in the third period, the Montreal Canadiens prospect took a backdoor feed from Sam Reinhart before burying into a gaping cage. With Hitmen defenceman Micheal Zipp and forward Kenton Helgesen both in the sin bin, there was all sorts of space for the Kootenay man advantage and it capitalized.
Unfortunately for the home side, that’s all they were able to muster as Burke shut the door in the final moments as Hoflin sat on the bench for the extra attacker.
Sunday afternoon the Ice and Hitmen battled once again, with Travis Sanheim registering the game-winning goal on a mighty blast from the point with 4:17 remaining the third period.
Sanheim’s 15th of the season gave the Hitmen a 3-2 lead and a late push from the visitors came up empty.
Levi Cable scored his 28th of the season for the Ice, with Reinhart adding his 19th.
Helgesen and Stallard replied for the Hitmen to round out the scoring.
Burke earned his second consecutive victory over the Ice with a 23-save performance.
Hoflin also made 25 stops in a losing effort.
With a record of 37-31-1-3, the Kootenay Ice finish the season fourth in the Central Division, sixth in the Eastern Conference and in the first wild-card slot.
The Ice face the Hitmen in the first round of the WHL post-season, beginning Friday night with Game 1 scheduled for 7 p.m. in Calgary.