The Kootenay Ice have a big test on the road on Wednesday against the Central Division-leading Medicine Hat Tigers, and they’ll have to do it without their star goalie.
Coming off an incredible weekend in which he made 87 saves in back-to-back starts, Payton Lee has been hit with the flu bug and will not start for the team on Wednesday.
The 20-year-old netminder first reported feeling sick on Friday night after making 52 saves against the Regina Pats in an overtime loss. Although there was some doubt as to if he would play on Saturday, he powered through against the Red Deer Rebels and was once again sharp in another overtime loss.
This week, however, Lee missed practice on Monday and Tuesday with his illness and the Ice will instead turn to second-year backup Declan Hobbs to face the Tigers. So far this year, Hobbs has a .809 save percentage and a 5.38 goals against average in two losses.
There shouldn’t be any lack of motivation for the Ice and Tigers to fight for a win as they face each other for the first time this season. Both teams are coming off frustrating 2-1 overtime losses in their most recent games.
The Ice had 52 seconds of powerplay time in overtime but couldn’t score against the Red Deer Rebels on Saturday, while the Tigers were stymied by red-hot Vancouver Giants goalie Ryan Kubic — the WHL Goaltender of the Week — who made 36 saves against them that same night.
Coach Luke Pierce, however, doesn’t believe their last games will have much of an impact on how Wednesday’s shakes up.
“I don’t [think] it has that much bearing — we played different teams,” he said. “I thought [the Tigers] outplayed Vancouver in their game and were probably disappointed to not come out with the win, [but] as for us, I don’t think we outplayed Red Deer [even though] we did some good things.”
Despite their similar recent scorelines, the two teams couldn’t be further apart. The Tigers are sitting at the top of the central division with 13 points while the Ice are at the bottom of the entire conference with only six in 10 games.
“[The Tigers] are a very skilled group [and] they come at you pretty hard especially early in games,” Pierce said. “[They’re] real aggressive in their forecheck [and have] a real mobile defence.
“It’s good to get our first look at them this year, we know quite a bit from playing them last year, they haven’t changed a whole lot and it’s going to be a tough test for sure.”
The Tigers are a small and skilled team which could pose trouble for the bigger and more physical Ice squad.
“The best way to [defend against them] is to play in the offensive zone,” Pierce said. “It’s something that we’ve tried to focus on, and regardless of who our opponent is we have to sustain time in [their zone].
“It’s pretty hard for them to score when they’re 200 feet away from our net [so] we need to do a better job of that.”
Pierce also knows his team can’t afford to get as many penalty minutes as they have been in recent games.
“Their powerplay is really good so [we have to be] disciplined and prevent any second opportunities in our zone.”
After Wednesday’s game, the teams will meet for the second time this year on Friday in Cranbrook. The home-and-home series against a divisional rival provides an excellent opportunity for the Ice to turn around their season.
With nine of the Ice’s first ten games decided by one goal, and eight of them going in the opponent’s favour — with three overtime losses and one shootout loss — the Ice seem poised to start accumulating more wins.
Despite their struggles, the Ice have a star in winger Zak Zborosky, who has developed into an elite goal scorer with his nine goals in ten games tying him for second in the league in that department. He only has 1 assist, however, and holds a -3 plus/minus rating.
The Tigers also have offensive threats with three forwards at over 10 points so far this year. Chad Butcher leads the way with 15, while Mason Shaw has 13 and Zach Fischer has 10. In net Nick Schneider has been sharp as well with a 0.915 save percentage to go with a 5-1-1-0 record.
Other than Lee, the Ice will also be missing rookie defenceman Sam Huston who is out for another week with an upper-body injury and forward Kaeden Taphorn who is close to returning and could factor into Friday’s rematch.