Cale Fleury stepped off the bench with less than two minutes to go in overtime and hollered for the puck with a clear lane in front of him.
You could hear the sophomore defenceman shout all the way up in the rafters, and from behind his own blue-line Matt Alfaro did as well, hitting Fleury in stride.
After a spirited opening to three-on-three overtime, the 17-year-old defenceman sent a wave of electricity through the crowd at Western Financial Place as he made a sly move to put goaltender Brody Willms on the deck before calmly tickling the twine.
What ensued was anything less than calm as Fleury’s teammates jumped off the bench and swarmed him in the corner.
Fleury’s overtime heroics gave the Kootenay Ice (5-16-2-0) a hard-fought 2-1 overtime victory over the visiting Moose Jaw Warriors (11-7-3-1).
“I just knew I had a step on their last defenceman there, so I was calling really loud for the puck. I really wanted it,” Fleury said with a grin after Friday’s win. “I knew I had a step on him so I could drive the net and take it to the other side. I was lucky enough for it to go in.
“I hate to be a cliche, but it was definitely a monkey off the back. It feels good.”
The monkey off the back wasn’t just the end of a four-game losing streak for the Ice as Fleury’s overtime winner goes into the books as his first tally of the 2015-16 WHL season.
“There’s no better feeling in hockey,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Kootenay Ice. “Just an outstanding play.
“Cale Fleury is a hockey player — plain and simple. That was a heck of a play by him. He had a great game tonight.”
While the 6-foot-1 blue-liner and native of Calgary played the role of hero in overtime Friday, that opportunity might not have come to fruition if not for some late-game heroics on the other side of the puck to force the game beyond regulation.
After a strong opening 40 minutes from the home team, the visiting Warriors put forth a hefty push in the final 20 minutes of regulation.
With an offensive zone face-off looming and only 2:07 remaining on the clock, Warriors head coach Tim Hunter called for timeout and beckoned Willms to the bench for the extra attacker.
That decision paid off in spades for the Moose Jaw bench boss as Noah Gregor collected a loose puck off the ensuing face-off, beating Ice goaltender Wyatt Hoflin to knot the game 1-1 with 2:03 to play.The goal — Gregor’s 10th of the season — brought a hush over the Cranbrook crowd and the tension grew louder as the Ice were penalized moments later when a rolling puck was sent skipping over the glass for a late Warriors power play.
“We’ve had some frustrating losses, but we learned from that,” said Ice captain Luke Philp, who returned to the lineup after a two-game absence due to injury. “Tonight, we did a good job of staying resilient there and we killed a big penalty after that [tying goal]. It was a big win for us.
“It’s hard. You never want to watch your team play. It’s frustrating with injuries. I’ve been lucky enough to be healthy for most of my career in this league. I’m happy to be back.”
For the bulk of regulation there was only one lone goal on the board and it came courtesy the 20-year-old native of Canmore.
Just beyond the mid-point of the second period, Philp took a feed from Czech import Roman Dymacek before hammering an absolute blast past Willms, who couldn’t do much outside of look over his shoulder.
What played out Friday night was one of the strongest performances put forth by the Ice in what has been a difficult start to the 2015-16 campaign and perhaps some of the boost can be attributed to the return of the team’s heart and soul.
“It’s funny. It’s an interesting phenomenon,” Pierce said. “You add a guy like that back into your lineup and what it does for the rest of your players — he scored the lone goal but we had several other chances and we could’ve been up three- or four-nothing.
“So many other players played well. Even guys that weren’t on the ice with [Philp]. It’s funny how that works. I think you flip it the other way with [the Warriors] not having Brayden Point in their lineup, I thought they looked a little dejected early in the game. I’m sure he would’ve been a difference-maker for them from a morale standpoint.”
Outside of Gregor’s late tying goal, the greatest morale boost for the Warriors came in the form of Willms — the rookie goaltender out of Coquitlam, B.C.
Only 17, the Moose Jaw puck-stopper was the backbone his club needed Friday, turning aside 30 of the 32 shots sent his way, including 27 after 40 minutes of play.
At the other end, the 20-year-old veteran Hoflin wasn’t overly busy through those opening 40 minutes, but made a number of key saves in the third period as the Warriors pressed en route to outshooting the hosts by a healthy 14-4 margin.
While there was no scoring to speak of in the first period, it represented possibly the best hockey fans have seen from Czech forward Roman Dymacek.
“It was the best game he’s played,” Pierce said of Dymacek. “He went after it. He was engaged on the bench as well — you could talk to him about things.
“He gets frustrated when he doesn’t score and those chances don’t go in, which I understand. But for Roman, those are real positive things when you start to get those opportunities and feel like you’re a bigger part of the game. Defensively as well tonight, he was effective.”
The 18-year-old speedster was around the puck every time he was on the ice, combining with his linemates to create a number of scoring chances early on.
First, Dymacek took advantage of a blunder from the Warriors defence at centre ice, picking up a loose puck and bursting in alone on Willms. Settling the rubber, Dymacek went right to left only to have Willms shoot cross crease for a sprawling save.
Moments later, Philp set up Dymacek in the low slot. A quick snap from the left winger was once again swallowed up by Willms, who ended up weathering a 16-shot first period to keep the visitors close.
Finally, in the late stages of the opening 20 minutes, Dymacek broke in on a 2-on-1 with Philp. The Czech opted to dish this time around and Philp fired for yet another scoring chance but, once again, the rookie Willms answered the bell.
In a night worthy of celebrating for the Ice, rookie forward Eli Lieffers — a fourth-round pick (78th overall) at the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft — added to the festive nature of the proceedings as he made his Western Hockey League debut at the tender young age of 15.
“It was a good experience just to be on the bench and feel the atmosphere with the players,” Lieffers said Friday. “It was a lot of fun.
“I’m very fortunate that coaches and management gave me the opportunity to play in this game. I’m just happy to be here.”
While the 6-foot-2 native of Saskatoon didn’t necessarily see a ton of ice, he was noticeable as he kept the game simple and followed his coaches’ instructions.
Lieffers is expected to see the opportunity to suit up for at least one more WHL game as the Swift Current Broncos visit Cranbrook Saturday night.
“We’re going to have to come out strong again like we did today,” Fleury said looking ahead to Saturday’s tilt. “We’ve got to stick to our game plan, be really disciplined and we’ve just got to shut them down.”
Notes: There were key players out of the lineup on both sides of the puck Friday. The Ice were without D Troy Murray (serving final game of two-game suspension), D Tyler King (knee), RW Jaedon Descheneau (shoulder), RW Zak Zborosky (lower body), RW River Beattie (head), D Jason Wenzel (headaches). On the flip side, the Warriors were left without captain Brayden Point (undisclosed injury) and defenceman Dustin Perrilat (upper body)…1,931 was the announced attendance Friday in Cranbrook…