It was good to be home, but it could have been a lot better.
After two weeks displaced from their rink, the Kootenay Ice returned to Western Financial Place but couldn’t find a way to give their home crowd a win falling 5-2 to the Medicine Hat Tigers.
With the Grand Slam of Curling taking over Cranbrook, the Ice were forced to play on the road and practice 20 minutes away in Kimberley in their recent stretch, which was less than ideal. Their first game back in Cranbrook, however, wasn’t great either.
“I thought we battled for each other [but] we need to play a little more simple, especially against really skilled teams like this,” said forward Noah Phip on the team’s overall performance in the loss. “We were in a bunch of scrums [though, and] that, at least, shows that [we] still care.”
The Ice’s triumphant return to Cranbrook kicked off with a parade to the penalty box for the Kootenay boys.
After going nearly five minutes without having a shot on goal by either team, the Ice were given the first chance at a power play after Tigers’ forward David Quenneville was sent off for cross-checking.
After only a minute, however, Barrett Sheen was penalized for high sticking. Matt Alfaro joined him under 20 seconds later for tripping, giving the Tigers some golden 5-on-3 time.
Despite boasting one of the most dynamic offences in the league, the Tigers couldn’t beat Payton Lee on the advantage or any of the four power play chances they had in the opening 20 minutes.
“It was tough to start the way we did, getting four stupid, selfish penalties,” said head coach Luke Pierce. “It put us on our heels right away and I thought our penalty killers did a good job and our goaltender obviously did a phenomenal job in that first period.”
The Tigers outshot the Ice 25-6 in the first period, and Lee’s perfect performance kept them in the game and earned himself a franchise record. Lee surpassed goalie Tim Winters for most saves in a period, who set the mark at 24 in 1996 — back when the team was still in Edmonton.
His shutout didn’t last long however as the scoresheet started to explode in the second period. The Tigers got the party started just two minutes into the middle frame when they crashed the net and James Hamblin managed to find himself alone with the puck on his backhand in front of an empty net.
Minutes later tempers reached a boiling point and Cale Fleury dropped the gloves with Zach Fischer in a spirited bout, with Fleury swinging wildly at his opponent in the middle of the ice.
After some more skirmishes, the Tigers doubled their lead off another tap-in while Lee was buried under a pile of players.
I thought in the second we were slow early and it was only a matter of time before they capitalized,” Pierce said. “But I thought that there was a good group of our players who continued to fight and battle, unfortunately, we have others that have a defeatist mentality and that really hurts your team.”
While the Tigers looked poised to take over the game after a dominant first half, the Ice were suddenly given life with under eight minutes to go in the second when sniper Zak Zborosky grabbed a breakaway and made no mistake on a low wrister that counted as his 14th goal of the year.
Although Matt Bradley quickly popped in a rebound goal, taking the life out of the crowd, Noah Philp got them back on their feet with a goal off the rush assisted by Ryan Pouliot and Dallas Hines.
As the period closed, the Ice looked like a different team and spent a solid amount of time in the Tigers zone controlling the play as if they had a power play, something that the team hasn’t accomplished much this year.
“[We] need more of that, consistently and that’s hard … [it takes] hard work,” Pierce said. “But even in that minute and a half of zone time, I don’t know if we ended up with [even] one shot on net — we have to be a little more determined to make sure we get pucks through.”
The Ice only had 12 shots after two periods and ended the game being outshot 55 to 21.
In the third, the Tigers quickly deflated the Ice’s hopes of a comeback. On an early power play opportunity, the Ice had a costly giveaway at centre ice that gave Mark Rassell a breakaway.
Rassel made no mistake on the break and slid the puck under Lee to put his team up by a pair. Two minutes later, Matt Bradley put the final nail in the coffin with another breakaway rush that found its way under the Ice’s netminder.
Despite the 5-2 scoreline, Kootenay kept fighting until the final buzzer— literally. Both Sam Huston and Austin Wellsby dropped the gloves in the final five minutes and left the Cranbrook crowd, if not happy, at least fired up.
“I liked our response, I thought we stood up for each other in that end scrum. We need that and we’re starting to see some people come together as a group that wants to fight for each other.”
Despite the heart displayed by some individuals, the Ice have now lost five straight games and have now been outscored 27 to six in that time. Their power play dropped to one in 26 over the course of the losing streak, after coming up empty in their six chances against the Tigers.
The penalty kill, however, was perfect, not allowing a goal in seven chances. It’s the second straight game that the PK’s been at 100 percent.
The Ice get back to action immediately, playing the Hurricanes in Lethbridge tonight. Kootenay lost their only previous match against the Canes this season, falling 5-4 on September 30.
Pierce believes his team can’t dwell on this loss.
“We have to move on. We have a tough time of getting stuck in a trap of feeling sorry for ourselves — this game is over — we played well at times, we played terribly at times but we just have to move on.”