It was a big night for the kids — and the slightly older kids.
The Kootenay Ice (4-12-4-1) won their first road game since October 7 on Wednesday night, with a 4-1 victory over the Lethbridge Hurricanes (7-10-1-2) in a game highlighted by both the team’s new arrivals and old stalwarts.
17-year-old goalie Jakob Walter started the game, just a night after starter Payton Lee’s 50 save performance in a 5-2 loss to Medicine Hat, and put up an impressive 40 saves in his first WHL win.
“As a team, I thought we did a really good job early in the game of just letting [Walter] settle in and not get barraged [by pucks],” said head coach Luke Pierce. “Start to finish I thought he was calm and composed and did a great job.”
Walter came close to also earning his first career shutout but had that dream dashed with just under two minutes raining when ‘Canes forward Tanner Nagel found the back of the net on a scramble situation in front of his net.
The game also marked the debut of highly-anticipated 15-year old Ice prospect Peyton Krebs who made his first of his five allowed appearances in the WHL before his Midget AAA team’s season and playoffs have ended.
“I thought [Krebs] fit in really well with [his linemates] Michael King and Keenan Taphorn — they provided a lot of energy for our group,” Pierce said. “The core of what he is as a player is an offensive guy and we’ve got to give him opportunities to showcase that and capitalize on his abilities.”
Krebs was noticeable from the moment he stepped on the ice and received significant minutes, including, as the game progressed, time centering the power play and lining up next to Ice goal scoring leader Zak Zborosky.
After falling behind a little, Zborosky put himself right back into the WHL goal scoring leader mix with the first two goals in Wednesday night’s game. Now at 16 goals, Zborosky is tied for third in the WHL.
After opening the scoring midway through the second by beating Stuart Skinner low glove side on a partial break, Zborosky put in the eventual game-winner early in the third after getting a rebound off of a great shot by Peyton Krebs.
Krebs came close to finding the back of the net several times and his one assist performance is certainly the most impressive debut game for a 15-year-old in the WHL this season.
“The best part about [Krebs’] game is that he’s always in the right spots and he’s a very smart player and that’s going to take him a long way,” Zborosky said on the young Ice addition. “It’s easy to play with him because he’s [always] in those right spots.”
Unlike their frustrating night at home against the Tigers on Tuesday, where they went to the penalty kill seven times — including four in the first period alone — against the ‘Canes, there were only three penalties apiece which made for an easier night to play their game.
“[Our] discipline was huge, Medicine Hat has the number one ranked power play in the league and Lethbridge [is] number seven and the best way to not get scored on is to not take [penalties]”, Pierce said. “We had a really good plan going into [the game] with our [penalty] kill and we did a good job and our goaltender was our best penalty killer.”
Several NHL scouts were in attendance at the game in Lethbridge, with many of them keeping a close eye on Ice defenceman Cale Fleury, who is draft-eligible at the end of the season and has already been listed in several lists of players to watch for the 2017 NHL draft.
Although Fleury put up the Ice’s two insurance goals, his play at the end of the game may get him more attention from fans participating in intermission shoot-to-win contests than professional hockey contract offers.
Fleury put both his goals in on Lethbridge’s empty net after they pulled Skinner for an extra-attacker, and he fired both of them from his own zone.
“In a 2-0 game there’s no harm in trying that and risking the icing,” Pierce said. “I actually didn’t see it from the bench because I was talking to [some players] but I didn’t have a problem with that risk … I wish he could hit the net every time he throws the puck down the ice.”
Fleury’s first goal came from behind his own goal line and in a clearing attempt, he somehow found the precise middle of the yawning cage. That goal added to Walter’s big night as well, as he was credited with an assist, his first WHL point to go with his first win.
“It was cool, it just went off my pad and he shot it down the ice and I just put my arms up and was pretty happy about it,” Walter said with a smile. “It would be pretty great if I could get a couple more of those.”
Although they were outshot 41-33, it was an impressive performance by the Ice to come back from a big loss in which they gave up 55 shots and only put up 21 of their own.
“I thought we had urgency right from the drop of the puck [and] had a really good first period,” Pierce said of the game as a whole. “Some of it started back here at home with some more intensity late in the game [on Tuesday] from some of our guys being more feisty and we carried that mentality into Lethbridge.
“All around I thought it was a really good team effort.”
The Ice now have a chance to bring their winning spirit back to Cranbrook. They play the Edmonton Oil Kings (8-10-2-0) Friday night before hosting the Calgary Hitmen (7-8-2-0) for the first time since opening weekend.
Having recently come off of a 3-0 loss to the Oil Kings last Saturday, the Ice know what to expect from them and know that they have to be better this time around.
“The [Oil Kings] are a really strong, structured team and you have to be patient,” Pierce said. “They can frustrate you with how they defend and [we need a] sense of urgency early on.
Hopefully we can take advantage of our matchups a little better and we need our top guys to lead the way. We’re a better team when they’re at their best and we want to get ourselves on a bit of a roll.”
With the win in Lethbridge, the Ice have — at least temporarily — dug themselves out of the league’s basement. They are now only in second last place in the WHL with 13 points in 21 games, ahead of the Prince Albert Raiders who have 11 in as many games.
Both the Oil Kings and Hitmen are in the bottom half of the league standings, so the Ice could very well make up some ground with a strong weekend. It won’t be easy however, the Ice haven’t been able to extend a winning streak past two games this year.
“We’re not [going to] rest on one night and we still have things that we have to get better at,” Pierce said. “We put that one behind us and look at the areas that we still had some struggles with [against Lethbridge] and try to improve on that [while] at the same time realising what gave us the success that we had.”
Puck drop against the Oil Kings is at 7 p.m. at Western Financial Place on Friday.