It wasn’t a significant game in the standings, but the Kootenay Ice ended their season with a ton of pride.
Hosting the Red Deer Rebels on Saturday, the Ice had a solid game from top-to-bottom and earned a 5-0 shutout victory.
On a night dedicated to the fans and the team’s 20-year-old players, it was a fitting ending to the year as Colton Kroeker, Alec Baer and Colton Veloso were named the game’s three stars to a rousing ovation from a large and boisterous Cranbrook crowd.
“It was awesome, an awesome experience,” Kroeker said after the game, struggling to put his emotions into words. “It’s been such a fun year… [this] group has really helped me out being a leader and everything.”
The team’s captain, Kroeker was bestowed the first star honours after earning an assist on the game’s winning goal. The marker came from Veloso near the 15 minute-mark of the first period after he took a cross ice feed from Kroeker and wired it past Ethan Anders.
From there, the Ice didn’t look back and stayed one step ahead of the Rebels all night. According to Veloso, it was truly a total team effort and a demonstration of their character.
“We just went out there, and we knew it was our last two games of the year [and] didn’t want to quit,” Veloso said of the final weekend, which also included a 6-2 win over the Rebels on Friday. “We wanted to go out with a good taste in our mouths, especially the guys next year coming back, they didn’t want to go out on that losing streak.”
After securing the one goal lead, the Ice added some insurance in the last minute of the opening frame with Cam Hausinger chipping one in on a mad scramble in front.
In the second, the Rebels started to counter more aggressively, but couldn’t beat Duncan McGovern, who was a wall in his second shutout bid of the year. While shorthanded, just after the 11-minute mark, Keenan Taphorn fed his brother Kaeden on an odd-man rush who scored while attempting to find Dallas Hines in front of the net.
In the third period, Hausinger found the back of the net again and then soon after, Baer made an incredible solo effort from the corner to the front of the net for his 30th goal of the season. Holding on from there for a big celebration, the Ice left Western Financial Place smiling.
“Duncan [McGovern] played well for us [and] our defense were playing well [too], their gaps were good,” Baer said. “I think our team is maturing now after a full year. Our young guys are going to be turning into the older guys and I think they’re kind of learning to step up into those roles, [which] will be good for the future.”
Patrick also gave a lot of credit to the team’s goaltender.
“He was outstanding. [At times] we were guilty of getting a little careless, guilty of being on the offensive side of the puck, [and] he bailed us out a couple of times,” the coach said. “He made two highlight saves, one in [the second and on in the third] period. Even with two minutes left in the third there, he was incredible. Those were his best saves of the year.”
McGovern, however, said that his results were simply due to the team’s play in front of him.
“It was a fantastic effort by everyone,” he said. “It would [have] been really easy for us to kind of take risks that we wouldn’t have usually done seeing as we are out of the playoffs, but I thought it was a fantastic character win by the guys.”
While this will be the third straight season without postseason for the Ice, their 27-38-5-2 record is a 21-point improvement from 2016-17 and they finished the year with as many wins as the Rebels, who made the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
While Patrick admitted that it’s hard to be content with a season that ends in March, he believes there are plenty of reasons for optimism moving forward.
“It was a bit bittersweet because we had higher goals at the start of the year [and] we played at a pretty high level for a big chunk of the year,” he said. “We were fighting for a playoff spot, in the playoff spot, and we weren’t able to cap it off, [which was] heartbreaking.
“I still look at [how] many valuable lessons [were] learned [though], especially with our returning players and our young players. We had three 16 years olds for the entire year, with Peyton [Krebs], Zac [Patrick[ and Cole Muir, [and] they’re going to be better for it. Our 17-year-olds [too]… I hope [everyone is] going to be better next year.”
ICE CHIPS: A ceremony for the team’s annual awards was held before the game. Colton Kroeker and Brett Davis were named co-MVPs, while Alec Baer won the Players Award as voted on by his peers. A full recap of the awards and the 2017-18 season will be coming up in the Townsman later this week.
The Rebels were without their top three forwards on Saturday, as Mason McCarty, Brandon Hagel and Kristian Reichel, did not make the trip in preparation for the playoffs.