On paper, the matchup seemed a little unbalanced.
That didn’t seem to matter, as the sixth-seed Kootenay Ice upset the third-seed Calgary Hitmen in six games to advance to the second round of the WHL playoffs.
Calgary featured NHL prospects such as Greg Chase (Oilers), Brady Brassart (Wild), Kenton Helgesen (Ducks), Jaynen Rissling (Capitals), Chris Driedger (Senators) and Alex Roach (Kings), while the Ice only have one in goaltender Mackenzie Skapski (Rangers).
Kootenay handled all that in stride, outscoring the Hitmen 27-26 in a wild series to earn their first playoff round win in two years.
“The bottom line is, we won,” said Ice head coach Ryan McGill. “We won a pivotal game in Game Four, to start and because of the high-scoring game in Game Three (a 7-6 OT loss), we could’ve very easily taken a back seat to them.
“We didn’t, which is what our team has done all year, we’ve been very resilient and to tie the series going back to Calgary, I think our group felt that our physical play had set the table for Game Five.
“With the big lead in Game Five, they put some pressure on us, but I think that was a situation of us scoring at the end of the period and losing our focus a little bit in the fact that we’d never been in a three-goal lead situation before.”
Game Six featured the emotional return of Ice player Tim Bozon, who had been in a hospital in Saskatoon for the last month battling meningitis. Bozon participated in game-day preparations before dropping the puck in a ceremonial face-off in front of the largest crowd in seven years.
“I think that it was one of those games that if you got off to a good start, we knew what the outcome was going to be,” added McGill.
The Ice split with the Hitmen at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, doing the same at home in Western Financial Place. Even at two games apiece, the two teams headed back to Calgary, where Kootenay won, and closed it out at home for Game Six.
They have a new opponent in the Medicine Hat Tigers, who went through the Swift Current Broncos in six games as well, and will open the series on the road on Saturday night.
Like the Hitmen, the Ice split the regular-season series with the Tigers, as each team has won three games, all of which came on home ice.
Starting, and winning, in Medicine Hat, is the first big challenge.
“They’re a very, very good, defensive-minded team that has a really, really, quick transition game that comes at you with speed in the neutral zone,” said McGill.
“We haven’t played well in their building, and that will be the key to the series.
We need to play well in their building and we need to forget about our last series right away, because it’s going to be a different animal.
“We’re going to be playing a team that is very structured, very committed to making you make mistakes and turn the puck over, and we’re going to have to be just as committed.”
The beauty of the playoffs is that each new series is a chance to hit the reset button, the Ice coach added.
“No matter how many rounds you win, when you go into Game One, you’re starting over and it’s a different mindset,” McGill said.
“You have to clear yourself, refocus and get to work. There’s no such thing as momentum from series to series. I think what has happened is, you got to make sure you’re consistent in your play.”
It’s been a seven-day break in WHL action for the Ice, but they have also practiced three times this week in preparation for their new opponents.
Sam Reinhart and Jaedon Descheneau co-lead the WHL post-season scoring race at 17 points, while Trevor Cox has the most points for the Tigers at 10. Cox, along with Curtis Valk and Cole Sanford, form Medicine Hat’s top line.
In the defensive corps, Dylan Bredo is the top-scoring rearguard, while Tommy Vannelli is a signed prospect with the St. Louis Blues.
One unknown factor for the Ice heading into Saturday is the goaltending.
Mackenzie Skapski was pulled twice in the series with the Hitmen, and Wyatt Hoflin closed out Game Four, following up with a pair of wins after starting in the next two games.
Even though Skapski had a tough series, he’s been a workhorse for the Ice this year, with 28 wins in 53 games, including a ten-game win streak during a stretch in the second half of the season.
McGill admits he doesn’t know which one is going to get the job yet, but he has been keeping a close eye on both during practices this week.
However, both are capable.
“I would never say that we have two goalies if I didn’t have confidence in them,” McGill said. “Lots of confidence in both guys.”
NOTES: Jaedon Descheneau was named the WHL Player of the Week on Monday, which was followed up by CHL Player of the Week on Tuesday. In naming him for the award, the WHL and CHL cited his performance of seven goals and eight assists in four games during the series with the Hitmen.