After a pair of disappointing home games over the weekend, the Kootenay Ice (4-13-5-1) have a chance to get back to the win column tonight when they take on the Red Deer Rebels (10-10-2-1) in the first of a home-and-home series which concludes on Friday.
The Rebels are in second place in the Central Division, while the Ice are in sixth and also second-last in the entire WHL. Despite their gap in the standings, however, the Ice could have a legitimate chance against the Rebels tonight. In their only prior meeting, Kootenay was able to take Red Deer to overtime before losing 2-1.
Coach Luke Pierce expects a couple of good games between their divisional rival.
“Anytime you have a home-and-home, there’s always going to be a little bit of added animosity and intensity,” he said before practice on Tuesday. “That’s something we’ve got to make sure that we’re prepared for. I think it’s to our benefit to start the series here at home and try to establish the proper game plan right away.”
Although the Rebels are fresh off of a game against the Hitmen in Calgary last night, Pierce is very careful to not take them lightly.
“The last time we spoke about [another team’s] fatigue with our group it backfired on us [so] we’re going to avoid any discussion in that regard,” Pierce said, referring to their loss against Calgary on Saturday, in which the Hitmen were coming off a long trip. “We’ve been working since Saturday night on [watching videos of the Rebels], so [we’re trying to] make sure that we’re as prepared as we can be.”
The Ice only have one win in their last eight games and are entering a busy stretch that sees them play four games in five nights. After Wednesday’s game, they play in Red Deer on Friday, against Swift Current on Saturday, and finally Edmonton on Sunday.
“There are pros and cons to being busy like that,” Pierce said. “The pros are that you have a chance to get back out there and right the ship [but] the cons are if you don’t get over stuff, they can add up pretty quickly.
“I think the biggest thing for us is that we need to have contributions from deeper parts of our lineup and it’s tougher to shorten your bench if guys aren’t playing well, so we need to live through a little bit of that. We don’t give ourselves much of a chance to win without the maximum amount of effort.”
Although they’re on a losing streak, several Ice players are heading into the night red-hot. Zak Zborosky has scored five goals in his past four games and currently has the second most goals in the WHL, while Matt Alfaro has picked up at least a point in their last two matches.
They also have a new addition joining the squad, who should bring in some energy. Acquired from the Regina Pats on Monday, forward Jake Elmer will be making his Ice debut tonight.
The 17-year-old came to Kootenay in exchange for a ninth round pick in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft. Elmer had been spending the 2016-17 season with the Grande Prairie Storm of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, where he recorded 12 points (9-3-12) and 21 penalty minutes in 20 games played.
“[Elmer] will get thrown right into the fire here with such a busy stretch and [he’ll] get a great opportunity to get to know his teammates,” Pierce said on the newest member of the Ice. “He’s really excited to be here and we’ll see what he can bring to our group.”
Elmer, who just arrived in Cranbrook yesterday afternoon, is happy to have a second chance at making his mark in the WHL.
“I’m very ecstatic, it’s been a dream of mine to play in the Western Hockey League,” Elmer said, 20 minutes upon joining his new team at the rink for the first time. “I didn’t make the cut this year with Regina and was pretty bummed out, but I worked my tail off in Grand Prairie and made myself available — this is a great opportunity for me.
Although he is good friends with Ice defenceman Cale Fleury, the rest of the group, and the team’s systems, are completely new to him. Pierce is hoping to make his transition as smooth as possible.
“[We’ll] try not to overwhelm him early on,” the coach explained. [It’s] very similar to the situation with Peyton Krebs, [we want to] try to keep the game basic and just have some fun.”
Despite going pointless in his previous 20 WHL appearances, all of which were with the Pats, Elmer is confident that he has the skill set to thrive with the Ice.
“I think the ability to make plays [is my biggest asset],” he said. “I’ve been known for scoring goals [and making] opportunities happen in front of the net, and I think I can bring that to this level.”
I haven’t really looked into the team too much, but I’m really excited to come in here and hopefully make an impact and get to know some new guys … I really haven’t spoken to anyone too much and haven’t got to know them too well, but so far so good — they’ve made me feel like family.”
As for the Rebels, they have plenty of firepower. Second-year Czech import Michael Spacek leads the team with an over-a-point-a-game pace. Defenseman Josh Mahura will also be a player to watch. The Anaheim Ducks prospect is excelling in his return to the league after missing 70 games last season with a knee injury.
Pierce, who expects to start 20-year-old Payton Lee in net tonight, is optimistic that his team can put in a good effort.
“We’ve seen [our] team play some excellent hockey [so] we know it’s there, we know we’re capable of it,” he said. “I think any time you have a young group […] they’re [just] going to go through some ups and downs.”