They did it again. For the second straight game, the Kootenay Ice got the best of the defending WHL champion Brandon Wheat Kings, beating them 6-2 at home on Sunday afternoon.
Once again, the Ice rallied after giving up the first goal and this time they did it in extra-exhilarating fashion, burying their initial tying-marker with only a second left in the first period.
It was Cale Fleury who put in the buzzer-beater from Troy Murray and Zak Zborosky, a goal that gave them the life they need to pull out the win.
“[Fleury’s goal] was huge, we’ve had that go against us a couple of times this year and it’s so deflating. [but] on the flip-side when you’re able to pull it off, it’s a huge momentum booster,” said Ice head coach Luke Pierce after the game. “We took off from there, I thought, and did a really good job of controlling the game.”
Fleury, however, wasn’t even aware of how special his achievement was until after it went in.
“I actually didn’t know there was only one second on the clock,” he said. “I just heard somebody telling me to shoot it and so I did. I knew there was a little bit of time left but I didn’t know it was that close.”
The goal sparked the Ice’s biggest offensive output this year, as they piled up six tallies on the night, from five different players. The two goals that followed Fleury’s were both power play chances, a productive area of the Ice’s offense recently.
“I think [Assistant Coach Gordon Burnett] has done a tremendous job with our power play. Even when it was struggling, it was still generating chances and you knew it was a matter of time before [goals would] come along,” Pierce said of the man advantage, which went two-for-three on Sunday.
Max Patterson put in the first power play goal, at the midway point of the second period, after grabbing a rebound in front and throwing the puck over Brandon goaltender Jordan Papirny’s arm. Troy Murray then got their other power play tally with a point shot in the first two minutes of the third frame – it was his first goal of the season.
Murray ended the game with three points, having earned assists on their first two goals. His contribution was part of a reinvigorated strategy for the Ice’s defencemen.
“[We’ve been pushing to] get [our defencemen] more involved, we’ve done a lot of work in the last week and a half to work on some offensive-zone stuff,” Pierce said. “It’s something that takes time and we’re starting to see some of the fruits of that labour… it’s good that the guys were patient enough to see it through and [it was] nice to get some more guys on the board.”
Following Murray’s goal, the Ice enjoyed a 3-1 cushion until Matt Alfaro added to the lead with a nice goal off the rush, ten minutes into the period. Although the Wheat Kings scored only 20 seconds later, Kootenay finally got to enjoy a lead of more than one goal for the majority of the closing stages.
“It [was nice to] be able to breath a little bit better,” Pierce said on the insurance goals. “We talked going into the third, [because] we didn’t have a timeout [left], about the potential faceoff alignment if it was late and we were up by a goal.
“[But] I just said to the guys, let’s not worry about it, let’s just go out and score a few more and they went and did that – they kept the foot on the gas.”
Although Brandon gave the Ice a minor scare, with their goal to make it 4-2, Zborosky quickly calmed his team with a goal at the 12-minute mark of the final frame.
In an odd turn-of-events, Zborosky collided hard with teammate Taylor Sidaway at centre ice, before moments later finding himself on a breakaway where he unleashed a deadly slapshot that went top corner.
“I think [I’d] had about five breakaways in a row [before that] where I’ve either shot it or deked, and nothing worked,” Zborosky said on his decision. “So in practice, I tried it a couple of times, and I said, you know what, let’s go for it, and it worked out.”
The goal was Zborosky’s 12th of the year, which currently has him tied for first place in the league in that category. His impressive play so far this year has not been lost on his teammates or coach.
“[Zborosky’s] been awesome, even in the games where we’ve been a little bit out of it, he’s just been working his ass off,” Fleury said.
“A guy that can score like he does is going to be a difference maker [on any team],” Pierce agreed. “Tonight [he] was a little more cerebral about how he went about things and [you] didn’t notice him a lot until he was pouncing on pucks and making guys pay.
“That’s what makes him such an effective player, I think he does a great job defensively and was able to find his spots today.”
Even Zborosky, whose top priority is on the team’s success, admitted he’s excited to be among the league’s best goal scorers.
“You look at the scoring leaders and you see yourself up there in the top three and you just want to be in the number one [spot],” he said. “[So] you keep trying, keep putting pucks on net and they keep going in.”
The night ended with Alfaro putting in an empty netter from Fleury, which capped off a truly remarkable weekend for the team.
“[The win] feels good, I’m proud of our group. We talked after Friday night [and said that] anybody can pull that off one time, but to be able to do it again today [with Brandon seeking revenge, was great],” Pierce said. “I’m proud of our leadership, I thought they did a heck of a job this weekend keeping everybody on task and [it was] nice to get rewarded.”
The Ice have, at least momentarily, pulled themselves out of last place in the league with the pair of wins and seem to have renewed life. Pierce credits the turnaround to sticking with the game plan, even after losing so many tough outings.
“With a group like ours, the secret formula is patience and not getting too frustrated, to the point where you change everything, it’s just staying with what you’ve been doing and building upon it.”
The coach hopes they can now take the success they’ve had this weekend at home, and continue it on their four game road trip which begins in Regina on Wednesday.
“We still have a lot of areas to improve in, you’re not going to catch too many people off guard anymore and I thought we did a good job of that today by being prepared for how hard they were going to push,” Pierce said. “Regardless of what the result is on Wednesday, it’s about making sure we’re doing the right things and our habits are strong.”
He has his squad convinced.
“We just have to keep the same game plan and keep working as hard as we have been, and good things are going to happen,” Fleury said.
Goaltender Payton Lee got the start again on Sunday and was once again fantastic making 35 saves on 37 shots, some of which were very difficult blocks.
The Ice face the Pats at 7pm on Wednesday at the Brandt Centre in Regina. They won’t return for a home game until Tuesday, November 15, in order to accommodate the upcoming Grand Slam of Curling event taking place at Western Financial Place.