Luke Pierce deserves an Academy Award for screenwriting, but I’m sure he’ll settle for a win.
The Kootenay Ice coach scripted a beautiful ending to an action-packed game when he called on player Jake Elmer to be his fourth shooter in the shootout with the chance to win the game on his stick.
Elmer was playing in his first game with the Ice, having been traded to the team only two days earlier, and was being given a second chance at the WHL after being cut by the Regina Pats earlier this season.
Not to give away any spoilers, but Elmer went top-shelf to give the Ice a 6-5 win over Red Deer at home, and capped off what was certainly the biggest game of his hockey career thus far.
“More than anything, I thought it would make a neat story,” Pierce said on his decision to use Elmer at such a crucial portion of the game. “New guy on a new team, you want him to bond with your group and winning a hockey game, there’s no better way than that.”
Having already gone to his default shootout players — 20-year olds Zak Zborosky and Matt Alfaro, who both were stopped — Noah Philp scored a goal to keep the Ice alive before Lee made a stop in the extra round to give Elmer the chance to be a hero.
And if Pierce is in the running for a writing oscar, Elmer should be tapped for an acting award. The 17-year-old sold his part of being a nervous newbie to a tee.
“I was [so] nervous, I lined up the opposite way — I was about to shoot on Lee,” Elmer said with a chuckle after the game. “I didn’t really expect it, [but] I was excited for the opportunity they gave me and luckily I buried it.”
The shootout goal was just the topper to what was already an amazing game for Elmer, who earned his first career WHL point on the Ice’s second goal when he assisted a beautiful deke-to-top-corner-pick by Zak Zborosky.
Elmer had played 20 previous games in the league, all with the Pats, and had failed to pick up a single point in any of them.
“All the boys were giving me a hard time on the bench [after I got the assist],” Elmer said. “It’s sure been a long time coming but I’ve battled through the adversity — it only makes me stronger as a person and better as a player — it was good to notch that first assist.”
While Elmer’s big night may have overshadowed some other great Ice performances, including Zak Zborosky’s goal and two assists that earned him first star honours, even the team’s leading scorer had to give it up to their new player.
“[Elmer] brings depth to our team and he played a lot of minutes tonight. He’s kind of like a little sparkplug for us,” Zborosky said. “I thought he did very well.”
It was a dramatic night for the 1506 fans in attendance at Western Financial Place, full of excitement but also quite a few nervous moments.
The Rebels entered the game having just beaten the Hitmen in Calgary 3-0 the night before, off of a 3-goal performance from captain Adam Musil and a 26 save shutout for Riley Lamb.
The Ice broke Lamb’s shutout streak just 34 seconds into the game when Barrett Sheen capitalized on their first rush of the game. Despite the hot start however, the Rebels came back with two quick goals and went into the first break up 2-1.
Despite Zborosky’s 19th goal of the year tying the game early in the second period, the Rebels ended the frame with an even bigger gap, up 4-2. The Ice refused to give up though.
“We got a little bit down on ourselves going into the second intermission [but Pierce] gave us a pretty good pep talk to pick us up,” Zborosky said. “We came out and got one early, and then we just started flowing.”
Matt Alfaro scored three minutes into the final period and was soon joined on the scoresheet by defenceman Cale Fleury and Noah Philp who made it 5-4 in their favour just after the midway point of the second.
Although Rebels star Michael Spacek knotted the game up with just under four minutes remaining, the Ice were given a huge opportunity in overtime.
Although 3-on-3 time has not been their friend so far this year, having lost five of their 6 OT contests, goalie Payton Lee stepped up in a big way – literally.
A minute into the extra frame, Lee travelled far from his crease to play a puck that was looking destined to create a breakaway for Rebels’ winger Evan Polei.
Polei ran over Lee and got a major-charging penalty and a game misconduct sending the Ice to a power play for the remainder of OT.
Pierce wasn’t surprised to see his goalie take a big hit for the team.
“[Lee] sacrifices his body on a daily basis. Anybody who’s crazy enough to be a goalie [is doing that every game],” Pierce said. “That was a great play by [Lee], if [he didn’t do that] that’s probably [a puck] in our net.
“They had a lot of traffic all night. He pays the price [all the time].”
Despite the emotional win, Pierce still sees room for improvement and they’ll need to be sharp in the rematch with Red Deer on Friday.
“We didn’t use a lot of our guys tonight, some guys struggled early on [and] we need more from them,” he said. “For our team as a whole, [we] feel good but there’s a bunch of players individually that I know aren’t happy with their games, so we need those guys to bring the intensity and energy on Friday.”
Zborosky will enter Friday’s game riding a five-game scoring streak. Over that span he has six goals and two assists, and overall he has the second most goals in the WHL. He’s eager to play another game against the Rebels.
“Going into Red Deer is always a battle. It’s never easy playing [at that rink],” he said. “It will be our first time going there this year and it should be fun, but it’s always going to be a challenge.”
The victory was the Ice’s fifth win of the season. They now have 16 points in 24 games, and remain in 21st in the WHL standings.
After their home-and-home series finale in Red Deer, the Ice will return to play back-to-back home games against the Swift Current Broncos on Saturday and the Edmonton Oil Kings on Sunday. You can bet Kootenay fans are hoping that the coach has a couple more fun stories for them this weekend.