“We’ve got real tough opponents coming in here next week … it doesn’t get any easier [and] we’re going to have to keep digging a little harder,” coach Luke Pierce said after last Friday’s 4-1 loss to the Medicine Hat Tigers.
The defeat was the second tough one in a row for the Kootenay Ice (1-7-3-1) who fell in both games of their home-and-home series with the Tigers by a total two-day score of 14-4.
Saying it doesn’t get any easier is a massive understatement and on Wednesday it is about to get a lot harder.
The Prince George Cougars (11-2-1-0) have been frighteningly good this year and they’ll make their first and only visit to Cranbrook this season entering with a road record of 6-0 while collectively outscoring home opponents 25-13.
The Cougars also sit at the top of the league, first overall in points, while the Ice — who have been beaten in all six of their home games this season — are at the very bottom of the WHL.
Pulling out their first home win against a team as good as the Cougars will not be easy and coach Luke Pierce knows that they will need to be at their best if they want to be competitive.
“We’re expecting a top end team [and] they’re off to a real good start,” Pierce said on the Cougars. “They’ve got a very experienced group and [are] good on the special teams [and] both sides of the puck — they’re going to definitely be a difficult challenge.”
The Cougars have earned a reputation this year for putting up big totals and starting off very strong. They have 51 goals in 14 games so far this season, which is the fourth-best total in the WHL. 23 of those goals came in the first period which is the best opening frame goal efficiency in the league.
“[We’ve] got to be ready to start on time. We’ve seen different versions of ourselves come out to start games,” Pierce said. “We’re going to need our goaltender to be good early on and give us a chance [and] get us some stops.
“[Then we’ll] try to force more play in the offensive zone.”
The Ice’s statistics are much less impressive than the Cougars. They have 29 goals for and 50 against this year, which ranks 17th and 20th, respectively, in the league. They do, however, have two players near the top of some individual WHL statistics leaderboards.
Zak Zborosky’s 10 goals are good enough to put him in second place in goal-scoring amongst all WHL players, while Payton Lee’s 0.929 save percentage is second best amongst goalies who have played three or more games.
According to Pierce, however, Lee is unlikely to return to the Ice’s lineup tomorrow after missing both games last week with the flu.
“It’ll be a game-day decision … it was nice to have Payton back on the ice [in practice but] it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to start,” Pierce said, indicating that he could see him taking the backup role against the Cougars.
Whoever is in net, though, Pierce believes that his forwards and defencemen need to play physical from the start for them to have any shot at a win.
“I think if you give it back [physically to] teams like that and you can start to frustrate them,” he said. “They’re used to controlling the physical play every night and [this opportunity is] great for our group right now because it’s exactly what we’ve been talking about — our need to play a lot harder and sacrifice ourselves — we’ll see how we can match up with them.”
Cougars forward Brad Morrison has started out hot in his fourth WHL campaign, with a team-leading 17 points. Winger Jesse Gabrielle meanwhile is on his own tear, having put up seven points in his last four games.
Starting goaltender Ty Edwards has also been no slouch with eight wins, a 2.18 goals against average, and 0.920 save percentage.
Tomorrow’s Ice-Cougars match is their first meeting in Cranbrook since January 2015, when Kootenay won 7-4 off of then-rookie Austin Wellsby’s first career WHL goal, which was the game-winner.
Wellsby and the Ice will look to conjure up some of that magic from the past in tomorrow’s Goliath matchup against the Cougars.
Puck drop is at 7 p.m at Western Financial Place.