For the first time in two years, the Kootenay Ice won’t be facing the Edmonton Oil Kings in the first round of the WHL playoffs.
Instead, the team drew the Calgary Hitmen once all the dust settled from the final results of the last weekend of regular season action.
Kootenay ended their campaign with a first-round preview in a home and home series with the Calgary Hitmen that resulted in a pair of losses.
The two teams ended the season series at an even record—Kootenay with four wins and two losses in regulation, while Calgary came out ahead with an overtime and a shootout win.
Though the final four games didn’t go in Kootenay’s favour on the scoresheet, head coach Ryan McGill isn’t worrying about the past heading into the post-season.
“I’m not concerned one bit about the losses,” said McGill. “We went through some injuries, we’ve gone through some tough times mentally, and we had some scheduling and travelling issues those last two weeks.
“I think the guys are rested, the playoffs is a new slate, we’ve had some time off, we’ve had some good video sessions and we’ve had some practices with some good teaching.
“I think rest and recovery has been the most important thing for our group.”
Kootenay finished the season in sixth place, sliding down from fifth after the Hitmen won both of their last two games. With the Ice denied points, the Swift Current Broncos beat the Moose Jaw Warriors twice to leapfrog ahead.
Despite Calgary’s success in the standings and their appearances in the BMO Top 10 lists throughout the season, McGill says it will be the little things that will determine success for the Ice.
“The biggest thing for us is we have to make sure we don’t give this group anything easy,” McGill said. “If you want to look back to the game on Saturday in their building, sure we were down 4-1 but they didn’t get a shot on goal in the first 14 minutes of the game.
“…We know we’ve had success in certain areas against this team this year, we gotta try to emphasize those areas to start games and start periods and every shift in shift out, that our focus is on that, and not worry about what goes on around that.”
Both teams will be leaning on their top lines, with Brady Brassart, Greg Chase and Jake Virtanen providing the main offensive threats for Calgary. Sam Reinhart, Jaedon Descheneau and Luke Philp are the main point producers for the Kootenay Ice front line.
“It’s always a battle against Calgary,” said Reinhart. “It’s pretty easy to tell that both teams don’t like each other, so it’s always going to be a battle and I think that’s good.
“A seven game series—I think it’s going to bring out the best in both teams.”
It will be an interesting goaltender matchup between Mackenzie Skapski and Chris Driedger. Both have the same number of wins at 28 this season, with some similar individual numbers. Skapski has a save percentage of 0.916, with a goals against average of 2.70. Driedger has a slight edge with a 0.918 save percentage and a GAA of 2.64.
The defensive battle will be one of the keys to the series. Kootenay was down to five defencemen last weekend, and it remains to be seen if Landon Peel or Landon Cross will return from injury to bolster the back end.
“Obviously, we’ve played the last couple games without them, so if it it comes down to them not being in the lineup, we know what to expect,” said Ice defenceman Jagger Dirk. “We got to keep our game simple and there are going to be more minutes out there, so everybody’s gotta dig deep and give more, and when they do get back—whenever that is—they’re obviously going to be a huge help.”
The series also gets the big screen treatment, as Shaw TV will broadcast every game between the two teams.
Calgary will host Game One on Thursday and Game Two on Saturday. The series will shift back to Cranbrook for Game Three on Monday and Game Four on Tuesday. If necessary, Game Five and Game Seven will be in Calgary, while Game Six is at Western Financial Place.