It’s been a long season for the Kootenay Ice, but in their final weekend they still have a lot to play for.
The Calgary Hitmen are in town tonight for the first of a home-and-home series that will decide if the Ice’s arch-rivals are going to the playoffs this year or not.
Although the Hitmen’s fate isn’t completely in their hands, if Kootenay can pull through with victories in both games and the Saskatoon Blades win their final two, Calgary will join the Ice for an early holiday.
The chance to knock Calgary out of contention is an opportunity that goalie Payton Lee relishes.
“[The Hitmen] are in a tight race and anytime you can be a spoiler gives you extra motivation,” Lee said. “They’re our rivals so we always try to come out hard against them.”
For Lee, the game is even more significant. The 20-year-old Cranbrook native is playing his final WHL games, as he will age out at the end of the season.
“I want to try to have a good end [to my WHL career],” Lee said on closing out his junior hockey days. “It’s been a long ride since playing games when I was 15 with Vancouver. It’s a bit sad, but hopefully it’ll be a good weekend.”
Getting to play a pair of games against Calgary makes it even more special.
“When I was younger, I went to all the Ice games and I watched [them play Calgary] in the playoffs, and game sevens with sold-out arenas,” he said. “[It’s an intense] rivalry and should be no different this weekend.”
It isn’t an ideal ending for Lee’s career, however. The Ice are already set to finish in last place in the WHL, no matter what the outcome of the next two games.
The team is also on an 8-game losing streak, having lost 8-1 to the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Wednesday night.
Although head coach Luke Pierce wasn’t thrilled with the loss, he thought the team showed some slight improvements.
“For large parts of [the game in Lethbridge], we were better than we were against Edmonton on Tuesday,” Pierce said. “There were some things that I liked, [but] I thought [goalie] Jakob [Walter] struggled early on.
“He played better as the game went along, but he needed to be better in that first period … once we got down 4-0, we had a lapse in confidence.”
Down 6-0 after the first two periods, the Ice surged briefly at the beginning of the third, getting a goal from former-Hurricane Colton Kroeker.
Their play then deteriorated again in the latter half of the period giving up a shorthanded goal. The ‘Canes eventually extended their lead even further.
Walter stayed in net for the entire game, making 37 saves on 45 shots in what was likely his last appearance of the season.
With an extra-motivated Payton Lee returning to the net and also the prospect of being spoilers against a top rival, the Ice should be able to have a bounce-back night at home.
Pierce, however, doesn’t care where their motivation comes from, as long as they come out blazing.
“If being a spoiler motivates you, great. If being better than your opponent motivates you, great. If impressing your girlfriend or mom is your motivation, great,” Pierce said. “As long as you show up and play and have some pride in our jersey. That’s what matters to me.”
The coach does care about rivalries though.
“I think a lot of people here have lost sight of the fact that [Calgary] is a huge rival for this organization,” Pierce said. “We haven’t beat them [in a long time] and that’s unacceptable.”
In the two years that Pierce has been coaching the Ice, the team has lost all 12 of their games against the Hitmen. Overall, Kootenay is on a 14-game winless streak against Calgary, having last beaten them on December 28, 2014.
The Ice are also on an eight-game losing streak, which is the team’s longest drought of the season. Nevertheless, the team has a goalie who really wants to go out on a high note.
“When I got traded here, my goal was to come in here every day and work as hard as I could,” Lee said. “I’ve watched the Ice since I was a little guy. To finish it off here is what I wanted and I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Except to beat the Hitmen.
Puck drop for the final home game is tonight at 7:00 p.m. at Western Financial Place. Fans are advised to get to the game early as the Ice will be holding a special presentation for their team awards prior to the game.