Without actually being playoff hockey, Friday’s tilt between the Kootenay Ice and Calgary Hitmen was about as close to playoff hockey as it gets.
Tempers flared, checking was tight and at the end of the night, the Calgary Hitmen escaped Western Financial Place with a 2-1 victory over the Kootenay 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. It’s something we’ve got to clean up for next game.”
Holfin did all he could Friday night, turning aside 29 of the 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. “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. We know it’s either [the Hitmen] or Medicine Hat that we’re going to play so 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.
Prior to puck drop, the Kootenay Ice presented team awards for the 2014-15 season.
Alternate captain Luke Philp hauled in the most hardware, being recognized for four separate awards, including team MVP and Fan Club Player of the Year.
“He’s easily one of the hardest-working guys in this league,” Hoflin said of Philp. “No matter how his games going — sometimes pucks aren’t bouncing the way he wants them to — but he still battles. His work ethic is something that every player should strive to have. It’s something you can look up to.”
Philp has had a banner season. Heading into the final game of the campaign, he leads the Kootenay Ice in scoring with 82 points (30G, 52A).
His assists total is a new career high as is his point total, having surpassed his marks from the 2013-14 campaign (46A, 77pts). With one game remaining and 30 goals to his credit, Philp also has a shot at cruising past his career high for goals, 31, which he set last season.
“I’m extremely honoured about that,” Philp said of his awards recognition. “To get the Players Award, that’s awesome — it’s probably the best feeling you can have, knowing your teammates think about you like that. To get the fan award, too, that’s pretty cool. But I couldn’t have done it without my teammates. There’s a lot of guys that could have also had those awards.”
Hoflin was also recognized for his record-setting performance between the pipes this season, earning the Most Underrated Player award.
“It means a lot for me personally, coming from where I started to where I am now,” Hoflin said. “It’s nice to be recognized by the organization, the fans, everyone that recognized me for the awards I got today.
“Early on, technically, I was improved from last season. That confidence grew as the season went and it allowed me to get even better at those little things I had been working on since I got here.”
Hoflin’s list of accomplishments through the 2014-15 season truly requires a story all its own.
The native of Spruce Grove, Alta., has set new Kootenay Ice franchise records for games played (66), minutes played (3,788), saves made (1,812), wins (36) and consecutive games played (29) in a season.
The Kootenay Ice travel to Calgary Sunday to face the Hitmen one final time in regular-season action.
“We need to do the same thing we did in the first and third periods [Friday] but just carry it out for the second,” Hoflin said. “Turnovers — they’ve got skilled forwards. We want to get it behind their defence, make their defense make a play with it. It’s just making simple plays, not trying to do too much and finishing on our chances.”
With both the Hitmen and Medicine Hat Tigers triumphing Friday night, the Central Division crown — and the Kootenay Ice first-round opponent — could be decided Sunday at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
2014-15 Kootenay Ice Awards:
Rod Hunter Ltd. Players Award – Luke PhilpApollo Ristorante Most Valuable Player – Luke PhilpRon’s Collision/Dixon’s Service Centre Top Defenceman – Rinat ValievAlpine Toyota Rookie of the Year – Cale FleurySkyway Distributors Most Improved Player – Matt AlfaroBDO Canada LLP Most Underrated Player – Wyatt HoflinEKC Community Relations Award – Zak ZboroskyRocky Mountain Diesel Scholastic Player of the Year – Cale FleuryFan Club Player of the Year – Luke PhilpHaddad Financial Services Three Stars: 1) Wyatt Hoflin; 2) Tim Bozon; 3) Luke Philp