The Kootenay Ice lost their seventh straight home game on Wednesday night against the WHL-leading Prince George Cougars but it hasn’t discouraged them from thinking they might finally pick up a win in Cranbrook this weekend.
So far this season, the Ice are at the bottom of the league standings through 13 games but look to be headed in a positive direction based on their play against the Cougars. They play the Brandon Wheat Kings on Friday and again on Sunday.
“[Wednesday was] a hockey game that we could have and should have won,” said coach Luke Pierce following the 5-3 loss, in which the Ice outshot their opponents 35-32. “With time and a little more confidence, I think [we’ll] win more of those games. I’ll take that [though] because the mistakes that we made are fixable. I can’t fix desire and heart and effort, so as long as we don’t relapse in that department, I think things will start looking up.”
The team doesn’t have to wait long to build upon their most recent effort, but they once again find themselves facing a strong team.
“We get another real strong team [in Brandon, here on Friday] which is hopefully a good thing for us because we’re up at that pace right now,” Pierce said. “[If we] bring the same effort, clean up some mistakes and capitalize on some of those chances – and improve our execution – I think you’ve got a good recipe.”
The Wheat Kings won the Ed Chynoweth Cup last season and are led by the projected first overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, Nolan Patrick, who is considered day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
Despite Patrick’s probable absence, the Wheat Kings still have plenty of firepower on both ends of the ice. Forwards Tanner Kaspick, Ty Lewis, and Stelio Mattheos all have a point-a-game or more so far this season, and defenseman Kale Clague has a whopping 10 points in only four games and was named last week CHL Player of the Week.
The Ice, however, are unlikely to be intimidated after putting up a good performance against Prince George and demonstrating that they can play an effective physical game.
While on paper the loss to the Cougars may have seemed simply like a continuation of their downward spiral, it was actually a very close game and the outcome was not for lack of trying from the Kootenay side.
“It [was] a tough one to lose, we were in the game from the get-go and I don’t think it was a matter of our work ethic,” said Ice forward Austin Wellsby after the game. “We did a good job of pushing the pace early, but throughout the game we just had a few costly turnovers and mishaps in our [defensive zone] that ended up costing us and that’s how we ended up with a loss.
The Ice competed well in the opening frame and came out with a 1-1 tie, thanks to Wellsby’s first goal of the season. He is now two-for-two in games against the Cougars held in Cranbrook. The last time the two teams met here, on January 25, 2015, Wellsby got the game winner on his first ever WHL goal.
Despite the strong start, a powerplay chance for Prince George deflated the Ice in the first half of the second period.
A little over five minutes into the frame, Ryan Pouliot was called for high-sticking and let the Cougars lethal man advantage get a go-ahead marker. The goal was scored by Jansen Harkins, who buried a perfect feed from Kootenay forward Dylan Stewart who errantly threw the puck right on his opponent’s stick in an attempt to alleviate the danger they were facing.
The Cougars then furthered their lead off an odd-man rush caused by an offensive zone pinch-attempt by Cale Fleury. Brogan O’Brien made no mistake on the shot and left the Ice down a pair at the midway point, with his second goal of the night.
The Ice rallied however, quickly making sure they headed into the break with a tight game on their hands.
With under four minutes left in the period, Pouliot managed to spring Matt Alfaro on a breakaway with a hard cross-ice pass. A trailing Cougars defenseman caused Alfaro to slow up and with Noah Philp flying to the net, he threw it on goal.
While the Cougars goalie got a piece of Alfaro’s shot, the puck fluttered in the air and Philp batted it in perfectly to narrow the score to 3-2. Following the goal, Kootenay continued to buzz with their top players lining up together, but despite a very close chance for Zak Zborosky, the Ice headed into the second down one.
They didn’t come out of the second period unscathed, though. Kaeden Taphorn, who only recently returned to the lineup after a facial injury, left the game clutching his arm and did not return.
“[What happened to Taphorn] is just real unfortunate circumstance, he’s had shoulder problems and you feel awful for the kid,” coach Luke Pierce said on the rookie winger. “He’s been such a great kid for us and we’ll miss his presence in our lineup. We’ll wait and see a little more, but it doesn’t look good at this point and all we can do is really hope the best for him.”
Two quick calls against Prince George within the first 30 seconds of the third period, gave the Ice a perfect opportunity to get back in the game, but despite strong play from their top unit they couldn’t capitalize. Pierce said it was, unfortunately, the turning point of the evening.
“[We had] almost a full two minutes of 5-on-3… that changes the dynamic of the game and that [was] the difference tonight,” he said. “They didn’t have one first year player in their lineup today, [they’re] a good hockey team and they capitalized on our mistakes and we didn’t [do the same to them].”
Following the Ice’s blown power play opportunity, Harkins put in his second goal of the night. The Cougars leading scorer, Brad Morrison, then sealed their victory with an empty-net goal in the last two minutes.
Despite the disappointing ending, Pierce was encouraged by his team’s play — especially their physicality and desire to compete.
“[I] hope they’re getting the message [about making physical sacrifices], that’s why getting a win is so important, so the messages get reinforced,” he said. “But we have to be mature enough to realize that there were a lot of good things [that we did against the Cougars].”
After Friday’s game, the Ice face the Wheat Kings again in a rare Sunday afternoon game. A two-game series at Western Financial Place should provide an excellent opportunity to stop their Cranbrook losing skid and get their season on track. While it won’t be easy, there is a belief in the Kootenay locker room that they can get wins over the weekend.
“[Brandon] is obviously a strong team but we need to build off of the work ethic we had tonight,” Wellsby said. “I think if we play like we did [against the Cougars], we should have more success.”