It was a “must-win” but the Ice’s remaining games have not been cancelled.
Wednesday afternoon’s road loss to the Edmonton Oil Kings may not have been part of the plan, but the 3-2 overtime decision is now just another stumbling block Kootenay will have to overcome.
“I thought we did a pretty good job [in Edmonton] and I liked our physicality,” said head coach Luke Pierce. “It [was] a tough one to swallow because I thought it was a game we had in our hands.”
The Ice were at a disadvantage before the opening puck drop, as leading scorer Colton Kroeker didn’t make the trip.
“He got hit with a nasty flu on Monday and we made the decision to leave him home and protect the rest of our guys,” Pierce said. “It was a big loss, he’s been playing really well of late and would’ve been a great addition, but we’ll have him back [for Friday].”
With a start time of 11:30 a.m., the game was the earliest the Ice have played all year. The morning legs were apparent on both sides in the first period and the game got off to a slow start.
Scoreless through 20 minutes, the Ice pulled ahead in the second period thanks to a pair of early power plays.
Reed Morison put in the first after taking a Ryan Pouliot point shot and stickhandling past Oil Kings’ goalie Patrick Dea in close.
Minutes later, Vince Loschiavo scored his team-leading 22nd goal, taking a Brett Davis pass and wristing it top corner from the top of the faceoff circle.
With 10 seconds left in the middle frame, however, Loschiavo turned over a puck in the neutral zone and defenceman Dallas Hines blew a tire, giving Davis Koch a breakaway goal.
The one-goal deficit and a pair of power plays in the third period breathed life back into the Edmonton squad and despite Payton Lee’s solid play, Trey Fix-Wolansky redirected a Conner McDonald shot to tie the game with just over 3 minutes left.
In overtime, Colton Kehler took a feed on a 2-on-1 from Tyler Robertson and handed the Ice their seventh straight loss.
“We started to show some fatigue [in the third period],” Pierce said Wednesday on their downfall. “Some guys who had to play a lot of minutes maybe weren’t as smart and efficient as they [needed to be] when they were tired.”
Despite the loss, the Ice’s power play returned to form, going 2/4 after a stretch of 0/12 in their previous three games.
“Part of [our power play success] was because we were playing against a team that has some really young defenceman,” Pierce said. “[The Oil Kings] only had five dressed and two of them were affiliate players, so we should have been a lot better 5-on-5 creating scoring chances.”
Kootenay have a big weekend ahead of them, playing two games in front of their home crowd on Friday and Saturday night. The weekend also coincides with Rogers Hometown Hockey, a national celebration of hockey communities in Canada that’s stopping in Cranbrook for a few days.
Friday’s game is ‘Pink the Rink’ night, an annual event in which fans are encouraged to wear pink in support of anti-bullying initiatives.
With an influx of kids from local schools in the building, the Ice have a shot at redemption against the Saskatoon Blades, a team who beat them twice earlier this year.
While the Blades haven’t had the best season, they are currently in the second Eastern Conference wild-card spot, a position that should make them hungry for a win against the Ice.
“[Saskatoon] work their butts off. They’re a desperate group and they’ve been playing really well since the [trade] deadline,” Pierce said. “No amount of adversity has seemed to derail them, they’ve had some pretty key injuries [yet] they keep finding ways.”
The Blades have won three of their past four games, only falling in a shootout in their last game on Wednesday to the powerhouse Everett Silvertips.
Saskatoon has been led all year by goaltender Logan Flodell who has a 0.911 save percentage through 37 games, as well as forward Jesse Shynkaruk who has 40 points in 42 games.
They have also been aided by 15-year-old second overall draft pick Kirby Dach, who has three goals in three games since joining the team on an emergency basis.
“[It’s] like when we had Peyton Krebs in our lineup. If you treat him like he’s 15-years-old, he’s going to burn you,” Pierce said preparing for Dachs. “He’s a good player [and] we have to treat him no different than we do the other high-end guys from other teams and play him hard.
“But they’ve got other weapons there [too]. They’re a dangerous team up front and commit hard to defending. It’ll be a tough game.”
On Saturday, it will be ‘Jersey Off the Back’ night. Those in attendance will have the opportunity to bid on game-worn jerseys in support of the Kootenay Ice Education Fund. There will also be a special guest in Hometown Hockey host, Tara Slone, who will drop the opening ceremonial puck.
The Victoria Royals are their opponents for the night and are mostly an unknown adversary making their only visit to Cranbrook this year.
“[The Royals] are a little different opponent. [I’d] compare them more to Medicine Hat — a lot of skill up front and pretty active defence who play a very offensive game,” Pierce said. “We have to try to control the pace of the game and make sure it doesn’t become a track meet.”
Like the Blades, Victoria has one of the league’s top goaltenders. Coming into the game, Griffen Outhouse leads the WHL with 30 wins, while maintaining a 0.921 save percentage.
Offensively, the team is led by diminutive Calgary Flames prospect Matthew Phillips, who has 40 goals and 69 points in 56 games in his sophomore WHL campaign.
While Victoria is on a two-game losing streak, they are in the top Wild Card position in the Western Conference and have accrued 32 more points than the Ice so far this season.
With a 5-3 Prince Albert Raiders win over the Brandon Wheat Kings on Wednesday night, the Ice are now in last place in the WHL with 12-35-8-2 record. According to coach Luke Pierce, the extra motivation of avoiding the 22nd spot isn’t necessary.
“It’s a bit of sad motivation for our group, but I would hope that you would never want to finish last in anything you do,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of things to focus on and worry about to get better in our own right.
“We don’t control what Prince Albert is doing. Credit to them, they’re playing really well right now but we need to find ways, just like they are, to win games.”
With the Pink the Rink promotion and Hometown Hockey taking over Cranbrook, Pierce hopes that an elevated sense of excitement in town will lead to success, but believes the pressure falls more on them than on the fans.
“It would certainly be nice to have some people in the building and making some noise,” he said. “We’ve seen some great crowds over the past couple of years get noisy, but it’s up to us to give them a reason to want to be involved in the game.”
Both Kootenay’s weekend games will take place at Western Financial Place, with 7 p.m. puck drops on Friday and Saturday.