Battle as they might, the black-and-blue Kootenay Ice simply dug a hole too deep and too early Wednesday night.
Falling behind the Regina Pats by a 4-1 margin before the five-minute mark of the second period, the Ice scraped back into the affair but ultimately came up short in a 5-3 loss at the Brandt Centre Wednesday night.
“I liked our resolve under tough circumstance,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Kootenay Ice, over the phone from Regina following Wednesday’s loss. “I thought we played okay, even when we were down.
“To go down 4-1, it would’ve been pretty easy for our group to shut ‘er down with the bodies we were missing.
“We stuck with the plan, even early on… Five-on-five, I thought we played well for the large part. The game plan starts to pay off for you in the second [period] and in the third, you’re running on fumes a little bit.”
Already without the services of defenceman Troy Murray (neck/throat) and forwards Roman Dymacek (lower body), Austin Gray (illness) and Dylan Stewart (concussion), the Kootenay bench boss was dealt another blow Tuesday evening as centre Matt Alfaro (undisclosed) was knocked out of action during a 3-0 loss at Medicine Hat.
Playing the second game in two nights and to make matters worse, sophomore winger Austin Wellsby (undisclosed) was lost in the first period of play Wednesday at Regina, leaving Pierce with only 10 healthy forwards at his disposal, two of which were affiliates Eli Lieffers and Reed Morison.
“It’s deja vu a little bit, kind of like what we dealt with in September,” Pierce said of the mounting injury situation. “I think we’re more mature at handling it now than we were then. We’ll try to survive it here for the rest of the trip.”
Morison was recalled in advance of the road trip and made his Ice debut Tuesday, while Lieffers joined the club Wednesday in Regina.
As for Alfaro and Wellsby, Pierce does not expect either to return to the lineup before the conclusion of his team’s four-game road trip, which still has stops in Prince Albert (Friday) and Saskatoon (Saturday).
Facing a depleted Ice lineup Wednesday, Austin Wagner scored shorthanded and Cole Sanford used the man advantage to tally his first of three on the night and give the hosts a 2-0 lead before the midpoint of the first period.
Ice veteran Zak Zborosky, a native of Regina, scored on home ice to pull his club back within one before Sanford made it 3-1 heading into the first intermission.
After Lane Zablocki extended the hosts lead to 4-1 only 4:09 into the second period, it looked as though the visitors might be in for a long night.
Called in to help out, the affiliates did exactly that in the second period.
Lieffers registered his first-career WHL goal only 28 seconds after Zablocki had made it 4-1. The 6-foot-1 native of Saskatoon used his long reach to wrap the puck around from behind the net of Pats goaltender Tyler Brown and after taking a couple fortuitous bounces, the biscuit trickled across the goal line to make it 4-2.
There was some deliberation on the play and debate as to who got the final touch, but as of print deadline, the goal belonged to Lieffers.
“Eli looked real good right from the get-go,” Pierce said. “With this being his second time up with us, the nerves were not quite as bad. He was effective.”
Midway through the second period, Morison scored his first-career WHL goal to duplicate the effort by Lieffers.
Driving the net, the 6-foot-3 native of Calgary redirected a Cale Fleury point shot to pull the visitors within one goal heading into the final 20 minutes of play.
“[Morison’s] presence was much more noticeable [Wednesday than Tuesday],” Pierce said.
“Both pretty simple goals, but very effective. We’re going to need those guys for the rest of this trip obviously with the numbers we’re missing.”
Unfortunately for the Ice, that’s as close as they got Wednesday night as the Pats closed things out in the third period.
Sanford completed his hat-trick performance by depositing one last puck into the empty net with only 41 seconds remaining in regulation.
Wyatt Hoflin made 41 saves in a losing cause, while Brown turned aside 29 pucks to collect his 19th victory of the season.
The win further solidified a wildcard position for the Pats (31-26-3-4), who now sit eight points ahead of the Edmonton Oil Kings (27-30-6-1) for the top wildcard in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
The Ice fall to 10-48-6-0 on the season with the defeat. After taking Thursday off, the team heads to Prince Albert to face the Raiders (34-21-7-1) Friday night.
Kootenay Ice 3 at Regina Pats 5
First Period 1. REG – A. Wagner, (25) (A. Brooks), 2:02 (SH)2. REG – C. Sanford, (34) (C. Hobbs, A. Brooks), 7:09 (PP)3. KTN – Z. Zborosky, (26) (C. Fleury, J. Zaharichuk), 10:244. REG – C. Sanford, (35) (S. Richards, C. Hobbs), 18:32
Second Period5. REG – L. Zablocki, (15) (C. Harrison, A. Brooks), 4:096. KTN – E. Lieffers, (1) (T. Lishchynsky, N. Philp), 4:377. KTN – R. Morison, (1) (C. Fleury, D. Hines), 9:03
Third Period8. REG – C. Sanford, (36) (unassisted), 19:19 (EN)
Shots 1 2 3 TKootenay Ice 12 14 6 32Regina Pats 17 11 18 46
Goaltenders Saves Mins SV%KTN – Wyatt Hoflin 41/45 59:04 0.911REG – Tyler Brown 29/32 60:00 0.906
Power playsKootenay Ice 0/4 (00.0%)Regina Pats 1/3 (33.3%)
Three Stars 1) RW Cole Sanford, Regina Pats (3G, plus-2);2) RW Zak Zborosky, Kootenay Ice (1G, plus-2);3) C Adam Brooks, Regina Pats (3A, plus-2)
Attendance: 3,556 (Brandt Centre)