The holiday break might have provided the Kootenay Ice with some much needed respite from the rink, but it wasn’t enough to spark a fire strong enough to torch a 12-game losing streak.
Sunday night, the Ice returned to Western Financial Place for the second half of the 2015-16 season and, in many ways, picked up right where they left off prior to Christmas in dropping a 4-0 decision to the Calgary Hitmen, extending a season-high winless skid to 13 games.
“We can’t sugarcoat everything just because guys are emotionally fragile,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Kootenay Ice, Sunday night. “You’ve got to grow up and be accountable for mistakes. We’re not here to degrade anybody, we’re here to help make them better and improve. That’s the way [the players] have to look at the mistakes.
“We broke out of our zone fairly good when we wanted to go the right way. When we want to turn back and go towards our own end, it doesn’t work. There were some good things and we’ll talk about them, but we’ll also highlight the mistakes we made.”
There was no shortage of mistakes Sunday night in front of 2,167 fans at Western Financial Place.
“A couple mistakes in the first period cost,” said Ice defenceman Troy Murray. “We just couldn’t seem to bury our chances. If we had done that, it might have been a whole different game.
“It’s always tough on a long losing streak like that. We’ve just got to come together as a team and work as a team. That’s how we’re going to win games.”
Pierce has stressed the importance for his team to take care of areas of the game that are within their control, such as penalties, turnovers and compete level.
Penalties and turnovers were definitely costly for the Ice during the first period and there was no clawing back after the opening 20 minutes of play.
Ice forward Austin Gray was saddled with an interference minor only 2:05 into regulation, giving a high-powered Hitmen squad an early opportunity on the man advantage.
The rookie forward had barely found his seat in the penalty box as only 10 seconds elapsed before Hitmen forward Jakob Stukel drove the puck from below the goal line, walking alone in front to tuck a power-play effort past Ice goaltender Wyatt Hoflin.
Stukel’s effort, his 20th goal of the campaign, went on to stand as the game-winning tally.
While an early marker created a hole in the opening moments of the game, albeit a small one, it was a late first-period dagger that really struck the Ice in the first 20 minutes of play.
As the Ice attempted to break out of the defensive zone, a turnover in the left face-off circle landed on the stick of Hitmen pivot Jordy Stallard with the final minute of regulation furiously winding down.
The 18-year-old native of Brandon, Man., deftly shifted gears from back check to attack, skating in on Hoflin before roofing a nifty backhand shot over the shoulder of the overage goaltender for a 2-0 Hitmen lead. The final goal of the first period came with only 33 seconds remaining in the period.
The Hitmen did the rest of their damage in the second period and it was debilitating.
With the game still 2-0, Ice centre Matt Alfaro took a long stretch pass in alone, unable to lift the puck over the outstretched leg of Hitmen goaltender Nik Amundrud, who was tested in difficult fashion for the first time on the evening. Following up on the play, Jesse Zaharichuk sent a close range zinger toward the Hitmen net, but Amundrud was there to make a second consecutive shorthanded save of significance.
Moments later, that burst from the Ice was all but gone.
“At 2-0 we had the chances shorthanded and then another real good shift,” Pierce said. “Then they score a soft one. Hof knows he’s got to have that. That one really hurt us.”
Hitmen left winger Carsen Twarynski cruised in over the blueline before sending a long-range shot, seemingly harmless, towards the Ice net. A soft thud at the back of the cage sucked the wind out of the building and the Ice bench as the 18-year-old Twarynski scored his 10th of the season to give the visitors a 3-0 edge, effectively eliminating any momentum that had been mustered by the Ice.
The wound had salt thrown in it during the final five minutes of the second period.
Hitmen left winger Taylor Sanheim used speed through the neutral zone, executing a smooth outside-in deke to twist and turn Ice defenceman Dylan Overdyk into a knot. Burning by the bewildered Overdyk, Sanheim cruised in alone and beat Hoflin to complete the scoring, giving the Hitmen a 4-0 lead.
The 18-year-old Amundrud was called upon to make some big stops as the Ice tried to get something going during the final 20 minutes of regulation, but there was nothing doing as the native of Melfort, Sask., made 27 saves to record his first shutout as a member of the Calgary Hitmen.
Amundrud’s steady performance was helped along by a Hitmen blueline that didn’t seem hampered much by the absence of Travis Sanheim, who is off representing Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship.
In particular, Jake Bean was an active presence, jumping into the play to create a handful of offensive opportunities, all while taking care of business at his own end of the rink.
The 17-year-old Calgary native finished the night with one assist and a plus-3 rating.
A big, experienced overage pairing of Keegan Kanzig and captain Colby Harmsworth left no room to operate for the Ice offense.
“You have to put the puck where the ice is and the ice is in behind them,” Pierce said of game-planning around the big, experienced defence corps of Calgary. “They’re big, they’re lanky, they like to step up and be aggressive. That means there’s space behind them. Putting a puck on the net is never a bad play. The chances we had were from loose pucks, shots off the walls. But we’ve still got some guys that think they’ve got a better idea of how to stickhandle through a Kanzig or a Harmsworth. You’re not going to do it.”
At the other end, Hoflin steered aside 29 of the 33 shots he faced.
The Ice (6-29-2-0) and Hitmen (23-13-1-1) will get right back to it Monday night, with the holiday rematch slated for 7 p.m. at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary.
“We’ve just got to keep working every day,” Murray said. “Hopefully we can reach some of the goals we set for ourselves. Just keep getting better — that’s the main goal.
“We’ve all got to be physical [Monday in Calgary] and really wear them down. That’s what we need to do to win. We play a lot better when we’re all physical.”
Notes: The Ice were without D Tanner Lishchynsky (lower body, indefinite), RW Roman Dymacek (lower body, two to four weeks), C Luke Philp (ankle, indefinite), RW Jaedon Descheneau (shoulder, indefinite), RW Vince Loschiavo (lower body, two to four weeks)… Ice C Dylan Stewart (head) returned after a five-game absence…
Daily Townsman Three Stars:
1) D Jake Bean, Calgary Hitmen (1A, +3)2) C Jordy Stallard, Calgary Hitmen (1G, 1A)3) G Nik Amundrud, Calgary Hitmen (27 saves)