Ice heating up before meeting with Pats

Matt Alfaro and Payton Lee impressed in American road trip, brace for CHL’s top team at Western Financial Place tonight.

After last Wednesday’s game against the Silvertips, the Kootenay Ice looked like they were ready to go into hibernation — tonight, they’ll have to come out roaring.

The Regina Pats are in Cranbrook this evening boasting a 19-2-4-0 record and the number one spot in the CHL’s Top Ten rankings. Thankfully, Kootenay have some of their top players currently playing their best hockey of the year.

“I think for every team in this league, it’s your 20-year olds who are the guys who help lead the way to win hockey games — that’s the expectation put on them,” said coach Luke Pierce. “All three [of ours] were good all week.”

The Pats top scorers, Adam Brooks and Sam Steel, are dominating the WHL point charts. Brooks has 45 in just 19 games and Steel has 42 in 20.

The Pats are coming off huge wins against Prince Albert and Swift Current over the weekend. Against the Raiders they put up an amazing 12-2 blowout before easily defeating the Broncos 6-2.

Over the two games, Pats defenceman Sergey Zborovsky had three goals, 6 assists, and was a +10.

“Unfortunately, the [Pats] know us well enough now, they’re not going to get surprised by anything,” Pierce said. “They know what they’re coming into [and] we’ve got a little revenge [on our mind] after our last outing in Regina.”

On November 2, the Pats ended the Ice’s only two-game winning streak of the year with a 10-2 whooping. They Ice had previously taken Regina to two overtimes, and won one of them, earlier this year.

“We want to show  them that we’re a much better team than we were there and get back to the way we played against them the first couple of games.”

In contrast to the Pats, the Ice are temporarily 20th out of 22 teams in the WHL standings, but are coming off a fairly strong road trip in the United States.

Although their game in Everett was tough, being shutout 5-0 by one of league’s best defensive units and goalie, the team’s road fortunes picked up in Seattle where they lost in overtime to the Thunderbirds 4-3, and then carried into Portland where they won 3-2, ending a five-game losing streak.

“I thought we played some really good hockey … our first period in Everett was excellent, probably the best hockey we’ve played in a month,” Pierce said. “We just got an unfortunate break against us on their first goal, and then we got away from [our game] a bit.

“On Friday in Seattle, we started really well and found a way to hang on, getting into overtime against a pretty talented team. To follow it up Saturday afternoon on a quick turnaround against another really good team in Portland [was great]. I was impressed by our group, I thought we had a phenomenal start, a lot of emotion early, and we created the opportunities we capitalized on.”

In their most recent two games, the Ice’s 20-year-olds looked like men amongst boys. Goalie Payton Lee had 55 saves on 57 shots in Portland, leading the team to an improbable victory against a Winterhawks team who limited Kootenay to just 24 of their own shots.

Matt Alfaro was a stud offensively, picking up an assist on Friday before earning the primary assist on all three Ice goals on Saturday. With eight points in his last five games, Alfaro has been the Ice’s most dynamic point-producer of late.

For his part, Zak Zborosky continued to be important for the team, scoring his 21st goal of the year on Saturday, which has him tied with three other players for the WHL goal scoring lead.

“I thought Zborosky was great and he finally got himself back on the board on Saturday,” Pierce explained. “[Him and Alfaro] were playing against the other teams’ best players and I thought they did an admirable job of that and found ways to contribute.

And then Payton Lee has been so steady for us all year, it’s something we’ve come to expect from him and we’re certainly going to need his best effort again [tonight].”

In addition to their trio of overagers, the Ice have had others step up their game as well. Rookie goalie Jakob Walter was a huge factor in their win against the Thunderbirds, putting up 38 saves on 42 shots, and Vince Loschiavo had two goals over the weekend while Barrett Sheen put up a pair of assists.

“I thought [Loschiavo] had a really good week … hopefully, it’ll be a confidence-booster for him, but he’s got to stay with it and continue to realize that it’s his work ethic that’s helping him have success,” Pierce said. “Sheen’s been really valuable for us too in a lot of areas. Even just his presence, being more physical and getting pucks through and on net.

“Jake Elmer’s continued to be a bright spot too and I thought our defence, [while missing some players], stepped up and played really well.”

It hasn’t been all roses for the Kootenay squad, though. Their shot totals have been dismal, especially in the second and third periods of recent outings.

On Saturday, they only picked up 13 shots after the first 20 minutes, and on Friday they only had seven total in the second, third and overtime frames combined. Despite the low totals, the Ice found a way to score. In their 4-shot second period against Seattle, they had two goals, demonstrating a recent knack for puck-luck.

“The last couple of games we started out really well and then the other teams start to clamp down, “ Pierce said. “Against Portland and Seattle, however, we weren’t talking about emphasizing our shot count, we [were] talking about trying to contain their offence and being more selective in what we’re doing.”

In total, over the course of the weekend, the Ice were outshot by the ‘Birds and ‘Hawks 99-43. However, the Ice also managed to come out of the back-to-back games with three of a possible four points in the standings.

The victory has temporarily bumped them up to 20th in the WHL with 19 points, ahead of both Prince Albert and Calgary. The Hitmen, however, have 18 points and have only played 24 games while the Ice have played 30.

Saturday’s victory was the Ice’s first win in Portland since May 13, 2011 — when the Ice won the Ed Chynoweth Cup in the fifth game of their playoff series.

A win to get themselves up from 21st to 20th in the standings may not be at that level, but it’s a start for this young group.

While a victory against the Pats will be difficult, Pierce believes that a positive start, like they had in their past two games, could go a long way.

“Getting out to a good start is key, “he said. “We haven’t had a lot of that this year [but] getting [a goal] really early in the game allows you just to settle in and realize it’s just another hockey team that you’re playing and if you do the right things, more often than not, you’re going to have success.”

Puck drop is at 7 p.m. tonight at Western Financial Place.