There was a twinge of disappointment in the air on Sunday afternoon, as the game’s scratches were announced over the loudspeakers.
For the visiting Vancouver Giants, there were a number of players out of the lineup including star forward Tyler Benson and 20-year old Thomas Foster.
Benson’s absence was no surprise. The 18-year-old former first-overall WHL draft pick had missed the team’s past three games with an undisclosed injury. Still, there were some audible groans from the contingency of Giants fans at Western Financial Place.
Foster, on the other hand was a late scratch and a surprise. By 6 p.m. he had been traded to the Moose Jaw Warriors for 17-year-old forward Brayden Watts, a second round pick in 2018 and a fifth round pick in 2017.
Foster had spent his entire career with the Giants, playing in 259 career games, but with the WHL’s trade deadline only two days away, all bets are off.
The Ice’s scratches were even more significant. After the long-term injured Nikita Radzivilyuk’s name was called, two names were uttered that created a lot of puzzled looks from the Cranbrook faithful.
Speaking with Vancouver’s TSN 1040 Radio in an interview played during an intermission, Ice general manager Jeff Chynoweth said that Alfaro and Zborosky were not in the team’s lineup to avoid potential injuries that could nullify a trade deal that they are working on.
“We’re getting close on both players [and] we hope to have something announced tomorrow,” Chynoweth said. “Unfortunately, we [wanted] to err on the side of caution tonight.”
Despite the shock for some fans, the rest of the team rallied together and gave the crowd a night to remember.
Although they were anything but fresh — the team got in at 4:30 in the morning after a marathon 9-round shootout in Spokane, in a game that they ended up winning 3-2 — the Ice had a good tempo to start the afternoon.
“I thought our start was really good and the way we kept getting pucks in deep and built our momentum as the game went along. [We] capitalized on their mistakes and tried to prevent as many of our own,” said coach Luke Pierce at the end of the night. “I thought the energy in our room was really good before the game, and that’s always a positive sign.”
While the Giants opened the scoring seven minutes in, on their first power play, with Tyler Popowich tipping Matt Barberis’ point shot past Payton Lee, the Ice responded quickly.
A good forecheck from Jake Elmer led to defenceman Cale Fleury beating David Tendeck from the side faceoff dot, sending the game into the first intermission tied.
Kootenay took it to Vancouver in the second period, outshooting them 12-5, and ended up taking a lead thanks to a late breakaway for Barrett Sheen.
With under a minute to go, Troy Murray found Sheen with a long stretch pass from his own zone to the opposing blue line where Sheen took off and ripped home a perfect wrister over Tendeck’s blocker.
“[That goal was huge for us],” Pierce said. “It was kinda part of the plan, as far as waiting to capitalize on their mistakes and not trying to force the game too much. It was a great play by Troy Murray, and we really focused on shooting pucks.
“I think we passed up too many opportunities earlier where we had chances to put it on net, and [Sheen] understood that, and it was a great shot.”
Early in the third, the Ice cashed in on their momentum and a Max Patterson shot three minutes in, bounced off the goalie’s pad and right to a streaking Austin Wellsby who made no mistake on the finish from the side of the net.
Although Popowich would score on a power play at the midway mark of the third frame, during another Giants power play, the Ice were able to hang on to the 3-2 victory.
While Wellsby, who has 13 points in 42 games this season was pleased with his game-winning goal, he was more interested in the win.
“We’ve been working hard,” he said. “We’re off to a nice 4-2 start to open the second half of the season, and it’s certainly nice to get the win.”
Pierce was very pleased with his team’s effort especially with the Zborosky-Alfaro situation looming over them.
“The thing I was happy about is the way we won the game,” he said. “It’s been awhile since we limited a team to around that 30 shot range, which is always our target. That’s going to be what it’ll take for us.”
The Giants had 34 shots, with 15 of them coming in the third period, while the Ice had 29 at the end of the night.
Wellsby credited the win to the team’s approach of not trying to do much or be overly fancy.
“We kept it simple,” he said. “Obviously, missing [Alfaro] and [Zborosky], our two top players and suppliers of offence the entire year, we had to buckle up and have contributors throughout our lineup and I thought we did a good job of that.”
Pierce hopes to see simplicity and a total group effort continue to be a big part of Kootenay’s game plan going forward, especially with a future that he indicated will likely be without Zborosky or Alfaro.
“The team game mentality is the biggest [focus] for us [and] not trying to fill the void of Matt and Zak by trying to play like individuals, like they do sometimes,” he said. “We [need] to make sure that we embrace a new identity and start putting our own stamp on it as a group.
“It’ll be interesting to see what we end up with — pieces that come back — if there is a deal done [with Zborosky and Alfaro].”
Overall, Kootenay was able to pick up 4 out of a possible six points in their three-game weekend.
The Ice, possibly with some new additions, will be back in action on Wednesday, January 11 when they play the Broncos in Swift Current.