After starting out their 2016-17 campaign with five straight single-goal losses, the Kootenay Ice hoped to take advantage of their first extended road trip of the year to turn over a new leaf.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, the Ice visited three Saskatchewan towns where they picked up their first win and then lost the next two.
On Friday, the Ice earned an emotional 4-3 overtime victory over the Regina Pats before losing to the Moose Jaw Warriors 6-2 the next night. They then played the Swift Current Broncos on Monday, where they lost 4-3.
“Friday was a big one for us, we got off to a real good start and got ourselves a lead,” Pierce said on their win over Regina. “[We] kind of saw the same story [as our first five games] unfolding but we did a heck of a job in the third period to keep ourselves together.
“Coming out with the win was big and overall I thought [we] had a real good team effort.”
For the first time this season, the Ice separated their two twenty-year-old forwards — Zak Zborosky and Matt Alfaro — onto different lines. The shake-up seems to have worked, as in the first period Zborosky scored twice and Alfaro once to put the Ice up 3-0 after the first period.
“The thought process was, being on the road, we don’t control the matchups and it makes us a pretty easy team to defend against when you put your two offensive producers on the same line,” Pierce said on the shake-up. “We wanted to get [Alfaro] going, he’d been playing well [and] just hadn’t got the results.”
“I [thought] it gave us a little better-balanced attack and I thought we saw better efforts from [Philp] and [Loschiavo] playing with [Zborosky] on Friday, and Sheen and Wellsby played well with [Alfaro].”
Although the Ice had squandered their three-goal lead by the start of the third period. They managed to push the game to overtime, thanks to stellar play from goalie Payton Lee.
“[Lee] was great, I thought he was really efficient in the first couple of periods and we did a really good job in front of him,” Pierce said, “Then, late in the third on the powerplay and into overtime, he was brilliant.”
Lee gave the Ice a chance to win and they took advantage of it. The game finally ended when Cale Fleury and Keenan Taphorn broke free on a two-on-none rush with less than a minute to go in overtime. Taphorn buried his opportunity and led the Ice players in a massive celebration.
Unfortunately, the emotion of Friday’s victory seems to have perhaps overstimulated the Ice who couldn’t repeat their level of play the next night in Moose Jaw.
“We found a way to get through the first period [against the Warriors] but we needed to get better,” Pierce said. “[I think] emotions were a little bit run out and [there was] some fatigue [but] we need to do a better job of preparing ourselves to move on after a big game like we had Friday night.”
The Ice and Warriors traded powerplay goals in the first but Kootenay’s discipline problems really hampered them in the second and the Warriors stars took over the game, with their team putting up four unanswered goals.
The opponent’s top line of Nikita Popugaev, Brett Howden, and Jayden Halbgewachs led the way and combined for 11 points on the night. The Warriors also scored three of their goals during their seven power play opportunities.
“[We] can’t give them [that many] opportunities on the powerplay,” Pierce said on shutting down the opponent’s top guys. “Our fatigue level led to us going back to the penalty box and [not getting penalties] is the first way you stop guys like that.”
Alfaro and Zborosky were the lone goal scorers for the Ice in the losing effort, continuing their impressive stretch of play. Zborosky ended the weekend with seven goals in eight games, which has him tied for second amongst all WHL goal scorers.
Declan Hobbs started in net against Moose Jaw but was chased after giving up his sixth goal at the start of the third. Lee then closed out the night, saving 14 shots to close out the night.
“I thought [Hobbs] did a good job in the first period of keeping us in it,” Pierce said. “He had a bit of a stumble their on their fourth goal which was unfortunate for him, but we’ve been extremely fortunate with how strong our goalies have been this year.”
Monday afternoon’s game against Swift Current followed a similar storyline to what transpired in Moose Jaw. The Ice survived the first two periods and went into the third at 1-1. Penalty trouble then allowed the Broncos to build a 4-1 lead before the Ice came up short on a last-minute comeback.
Rookies Nikita Radzivilyuk and Michael King scored their first ever goals for the Ice on Monday, while first-year netminder Jakob Walter gave up four goals on 30 shots.
The Ice are expected to re-assign one of their goaltenders this week.
Kootenay’s next game is at home against the Regina Pats on Saturday, October 14.
NOTE: Kaeden Taphorn received an upper-body injury on Friday and is expected to miss at least a week.