Will the real Kootenay Ice please stand up?
Forward Austin Vetterl knows critics around the WHL are skeptical as to which version of the Kootenay Ice is the real one.
The first to surface was a team outscored by a combined margin of 37-12 over a seven-game losing skid stretching Oct. 18 to Oct. 31.
The second team to come to light is in the midst of a five-game winning streak, which began Nov. 1 and has seen the Ice outscore opponents 24-18 along the way.
Vetterl and the Ice put that five-game run on the line, looking to prove doubters wrong, when the Central Division-leading Medicine Hat Tigers visit Western Financial Place Wednesday night.
“It’s a big test. We had a tough start, but now we’re on a five-game win streak,” Vetterl said Tuesday afternoon prior to practice. “People are going to say, ‘Are these guys for real or not?’ I think by beating the Medicine Hat Tigers, it would really show that we’re a team that’s up-and-coming and we’re going to make a bang in the conference.”
Coinciding with the renewed edge is the return of captain Sam Reinhart from the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.
The 19-year-old native of North Vancouver has tallied 10 points (3G, 7A) since returning to the Kootenay Ice lineup Nov. 7 against the Edmonton Oil Kings. After a seven-point performance (1G, 6A) through two contests this past weekend, the 6-foot-1 pivot was named WHL Player of the Week.
“I’m pretty familiar with the guys I’ve been playing with and they’ve obviously made things easy for me,” Reinhart said Tuesday afternoon. “A lot of [credit] goes out to them.”
Reinhart has spent the bulk of his even-strength time flanked by 20-year-old French sensation Tim Bozon and 18-year-old Zak Zborosky, who is on the NHL Central Scouting watch list ahead of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
Bozon has been steady of late, posting five points (3G, 2A) in four games since returning from injury and suiting up alongside Reinhart. As for Zborosky, the Regina native has tallied two goals and three assists in four games since joining the veterans on Kootenay’s top line.
“With Sam, you not only get a great player, but you get a great leader in the room who everyone can look at and say, ‘We’ve got to follow him and do what he does,’” Vetterl said. “Obviously, he’s a great player and changes the game.”
Vetterl mentioned how Reinhart’s presence has helped shift players around the lineup in ways that provide them greater opportunity for success.
In particular, 19-year-old Luke Philp has rocketed to the top of the Kootenay Ice scoring charts, rattling off nine points (5G, 4A) over the team’s five-game winning streak. Included in that is a four-point performance Nov. 14 against the Calgary Hitmen.
Led by 5-foot-9 right-winger Cole Sanford, who is third in league scoring (14G, 17A) heading into the Tigers’ Tuesday tilt with the Red Deer Rebels, Medicine Hat will provide a measuring stick of sorts as the Kootenay Ice battle to establish themselves in the ever-tough WHL Central Division.
“They’re a small, fast team with a good defense,” Vetterl said. “We’ve got to limit their forwards. We can’t turn the puck over at their blue line, we’ve got to be physical on them. We’ve got to take away their speed and capitalize on our scoring chances.”
Wednesday marks the first time the two teams will have met since April 16 when the Tigers erased the Ice from the 2014 WHL playoff scene with a 4-1 win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal.
“Obviously that’s always in the back of your mind, but at the same time, it’s a new season,” Vetterl said. “We’ve just got to go out, we’ve got to play the game, play the right way. We can’t look to take cheap shots [because of] last year or anything like that. We want to go out and we just want to get a win.”
A win won’t come easy for Vetterl and the Ice. At 14-4-1-1, the Tigers are the class of the Central Division, sitting second in the WHL’s Eastern Conference behind the Brandon Wheat Kings (17-4-1-0).
“It’s no question, they’ve had a good start,” Reinhart said. “We’re trying to get back on pace with a team like them in the standings. It’s a good test to see how we play up against them.”
Notes: The Ice will once again be without F Jon Martin (upper body, one week), F Kyle O’Connor (lower body, one to two weeks), F Levi Cable (lower body, one to two weeks) and D Tanner Faith (upper body, one to three weeks)…With his goal Nov. 15 at Lethbridge, Reinhart surpassed F Steve DaSilva (2004-08) for fourth in franchise goal-scoring. DaSilva tallied 103 goals in 271 games, while Reinhart has 104 goals in 207 games…Next up, Reinhart chases F Jarret Stoll (1997-2002) for the Kootenay Ice franchise lead in assists. Stoll tallied 162 helpers in 245 games. Reinhart has 160 assists heading into Wednesday night…