Cranbrook finally got what they wanted from the Kootenay Ice — a win.
Not only that, it was a home win — their first of the season — and it came against last year’s WHL champion Brandon Wheat Kings.
Heading into the game, the Ice were 0-7 at Western Financial Place and despite having been competitive in the majority of their home tilts, having lost five of them by a single goal, the Ice had not given their fans a chance to cheer at the end of a game until Friday night.
The players were thrilled to finally give the Cranbrook faithful that opportunity.
“I was watching the clock, seeing it go three-two-one, and then the crowd was very loud, I think to finally give that back to our hometown here was huge,” said Zak Zborosky, who had a goal and an assist in the win. “Everyone’s pretty excited about it.”
Coach Luke Pierce was also happy to get on the winning side of things in their home rink.
“It feels good, it’s what we’re in this for — to win hockey games,” he said. “It’s refreshing and I think well deserved, I’m happy for the guys that they get rewarded for a hell of an effort.”
The Ice were competitive from the get-go, keeping the game scoreless through the first period while managing to outshoot their opponents 13-10.
It was the Wheat Kings who struck first however, capitalizing on the game’s first power play in the first half of the second period. Ice defenceman Dallas Hines earned the penalty — a minor for cross checking — which set up the opportunity for Kale Clague, the most recent ‘CHL Player of the Week’, to drill in a point shot that led to Stelio Mattheos’ sixth goal of the year.
Although the Ice were forced back to the penalty kill two more times in the second, they didn’t let Brandon run away with the game. Goaltender Payton Lee, who returned to the lineup after a week out of commission with the flu, kept the door shut to head into the second intermission.
“Having [Lee] in the lineup [makes us] confident, he’s a very good goaltender and we can rely on him sometimes, like we did tonight,” Zborosky said. “He made a few big stops that not very many goaltenders can make and that was huge, he was a big difference for us.”
In the third period, the Ice got their turn with an extra man after Reid Duke shot the puck out of play from his own zone and earned a delay of game penalty at the five-minute mark. After failing to score on the power play against Prince George on Wednesday, the Ice would not be denied for a second straight night, and Vince Loschiavo tipped a Zborosky shot to tie the game.
“Against Prince George, [we had a] 5-on-3 [and] we had it their zone for a full two minutes and it just didn’t go in, I don’t think the hockey gods were on our side,” Zborosky said. “Tonight [we shot] pucks on net and [they] went in, that’s just how it goes.”
Zborosky said the goal was a testament to Loschiavo’s hard work over the past few games.
“I think [Loschiavo] is finally moving his feet and getting in there and digging. His goal tonight [happened because] he wasn’t afraid to stand in front of the net and you get rewarded for things like that and I hope [he] keeps it going because we need that.”
The game was only deadlocked for five minutes before Zborosky went to work again. Grabbing the puck near centre ice, the Ice’s leading scorer tore down the left wing, deked Schael Higson with a toe drag and then perfectly ripped the puck top shelf for his 11th goal of the season.
His amazing individual effort ended up being enough to get them the win.
Despite being pinned in their own zone in the final minutes, the Ice hung onto their narrow lead and with a standing ovation from their crowd as the clock ticked down, they finally found themselves on the winning end of a game in Cranbrook.
“I think it’s [going to be] tough to be that way every night, I thought there were very few things that we had to do better other than capitalize and score,” Pierce said on their performance overall, “[Now we] know that it’s there and that we’re capable of [playing that way], so your expectation is to get this [level] as many nights as possible.”
“I was really proud of us through the first two periods that we didn’t get [too] frustrated and for a team that hasn’t carried a lot of leads late in games, I thought we did a real good job.”
For Zborosky, the win cemented the importance of a physical style of play, which they’ve made a priority recently.
“We have goals in the dressing room for hits and sacrificing the body, a lot of guys did it last game and a lot did it today. We finally got rewarded for it and now [we] know this is what it takes and it means something and it feels good.”
After the emotional win, the team is back to work almost immediately as they have a rematch with Brandon on Sunday afternoon.
“[Brandon] is going to come out really hard [on Sunday], it’ll be a good test of our guys to be ready for another big push,” said Pierce. “We want to try to continue our momentum [and] not [worry about] the scoreboard and results, [we] just [have to] follow our process and [keep] playing the way we’re playing.”
NOTES: Kaeden Taphorn was out of the lineup after suffering an upper-body injury on Wednesday. Consensus 2017 first overall NHL draft pick Nolan Patrick did not play for the Wheat Kings and is still considered day-to-day with an injury. The Ice are now carrying only two goaltenders in their lineup after re-assigning Declan Hobbs to Nipawin of the SJHL earlier this week.