On Tuesday afternoon, the Kootenay Ice took a day off their regular practice routine to play a round at Wildstone golf course in southern Cranbrook. The outing was great for team-building and morale, and there wasn’t much for the players to worry about except maybe the wind blowing their tee shots off target.
Tonight, they’ll be back indoors — in an ice rink — and have Hurricanes to deal with. As last season’s Central Division champions, the Lethbridge Hurricanes are a force to be reckoned with and the Ice have the pleasure of visiting them at their home arena, where they will be at full-strength for the first time this season.
After starting their season by splitting a home-and-home series with the Medicine Hat Tigers, the ‘Canes have once again been gifted with the services of team leaders Brayden Burke and Tyler Wong, who were both recently re-assigned after getting opportunities at NHL training camps.
“[The game against Lethbridge] will be our first real look at one of the powerhouses of our division,” said Ice coach Luke Pierce, whose team lost two tight games to a depleted Calgary Hitmen squad in extra time last weekend. “They play with a lot of speed and they’re a physical group as well, so it will be a challenge for sure.
“I think [it will be] a whole other level from what we saw last weekend and we’re going to have to be at our best.”
Even without Burke and Wong, who were respectively the third and tenth top point producers in the WHL last year, the Hurricanes have already put up a healthy seven goals in their opening two games. Pierce, however, doesn’t envision a high scoring contest tonight.
“We can’t make it a 7-6 game, that probably wouldn’t go in our favour,” Pierce said. “We have to be real sharp on the other side of the puck and we’re going to need another strong effort from Payton [Lee].”
Besides their ability to pile up goals, the Hurricanes have also shown this year that they can rack up penalty minutes, especially fighting majors. In their first two games, Lethbridge has already collected 64 penalty minutes and been involved in 6 fights.
The Ice had a 1-6-0-0 record against Lethbridge last season, with the Hurricanes putting up 34 goals to the Ice’s 10.
Despite being an easier contest on paper, Pierce doesn’t see the Ice’s return home on Saturday against the Saskatoon Blades, as a cakewalk by any means either.
“[The Blades] are a hard-working group, they’ve got a new coach, I know [new Blades coach] Dean [Brockman] well […] and he demands their work ethic,” Pierce said. “[We’ve] struggled with them in the last few seasons … but it’ll be a good test for our group.”
Besides the change at the coaching helm, the Blades will also look different up front with their top three scorers from last season out of the lineup. Connor Gay and Nick Zajac both aged out of the league this offseason, and Cameron Hebig is still recovering from an upper body injury.
The Ice went 0-3-1-0 against the Blades in 2015-16. Their last win against Saskatoon was on February 28, 2014.
Pierce expects Payton Lee to start in net against Lethbridge on Friday and backup Declan Hobbs to be between the pipes at home on Saturday. He also indicated that rookie Jakob Walter will see some game action soon, as the club still has to trim their roster to two goalies in the next two weeks.
After recharging their batteries on the links this week, the Ice now have to focus their energy back to the rink. They’re in for a big challenge, and it’s safe to say that this weekend will not be a breeze.