The Kootenay Ice made a big statement in their home opener last weekend, beating the Calgary Hitmen 3-2 in front of a crowd of 3,392 fans.
On Friday, the Ice return to Western Financial Place and will be looking to keep up their recent success, this time against the Spokane Chiefs. Although a close 3-1 loss in Calgary last Saturday put their record at 1-1, the group is feeling confident about their chances over the weekend.
Kootenay play the Chiefs on Friday night at home and then head to the Veterans Memorial Arena to face them again on Saturday. On Sunday, they host the Edmonton Oil Kings for an afternoon contest.
“The crowd was unbelievable last weekend,” said forward Vince Loschiavo. “[We’re] really looking forward to playing in front of [them] again.”
Two games into the season, the Chiefs have already been a force to be reckoned with though. Beating last year’s BC Division champion Prince George Cougars, Spokane has a number of offensive talents.
“I watched [Spokane’s] last game and I thought they played really disciplined,” said Ice head coach James Patrick. “They definitely have some speed up front and I thought they had some mobile [defencemen] who got involved [in the rush].”
Three players are tied for the Chiefs’ lead with four points each, including former Ice prospect Hudson Elynuik, a centre, and top 2018 NHL draft prospect Ty Smith, a defenceman.
Dawson Weatherill, meanwhile, has also been solid between the pipes for Spokane, with two wins, a 0.945 save percentage and a 1.50 goals against average through back-to-back starts.
Joining him as one of the team’s two backups, is former Ice goaltender Declan Hobbs, who was traded away over the summer.
The Chiefs should also get a huge boost with the return of star forward Jaret Anderson-Dolan, who was recently re-assigned to juniors after having been with the Los Angeles Kings for the NHL’s preseason.
Anderson-Dolan had 76 points in 72 games last season and was drafted by the Kings in the second round (41st overall) over the summer. During his time with Los Angeles, he impressed enough to earn a three-year entry level contract in the world’s top league.
The Chiefs, however, will continue to be without the services of Kailer Yamamoto, who led the team with 99 points in 65 games last year. Yamamoto was drafted 14th overall by the Edmonton Oilers and is still fighting to earn a spot in the NHL and has been recently playing on the Oilers top line with Connor McDavid.
“[The Chiefs] have a lot of really skilled forwards [and] we’re going to have to have a team effort to solve them,” said captain Cale Fleury. “It’s not going to just be one line…. everybody has to be committed to playing defense when we’re out there with those guys.”
For Kootenay, the team’s point leaders are, so far, some unexpected players. Patrick said that his best line over the first weekend was the fourth-line of Michael King, Tanner Sidaway and Keenan Taphorn.
King leads the team with two goals and is tied with Barrett Sheen in points, with two apiece. Sheen, who had breakout success in preseason, has been playing on the team’s third line with rookies Peyton Krebs and Gilian Kohler.
The team’s top six forwards are still yet to explode with their offensive potential, but it shouldn’t take long for more players to find their groove.
“Last week was tough for chemistry, I think,” Fleury said. “We’ve had a [full] week of practice [now], so it should be good.”
The team’s first line should look a little different this weekend. Taphorn has been moved up to playing with Loschiavo and Colton Kroeker in practice, while Cameron Hausinger took over his place on the checking line.
“I wanted to have a little more speed with Colton and Vince [so Taphorn has] been practicing with that line,” Patrick said. “That’s what we’re looking at for tomorrow [but] we’re still learning about everyone and it’s still early in the season, so we’ll see how it goes over the weekend.”
The team’s second forward line of Brett Davis, Colton Veloso and Alec Baer also had a bit of a tough time clicking during the first weekend. Despite being three experienced veterans, the line hadn’t skated together until right before opening night.
Veloso and Baer, both 20-year-olds, were both acquired through trades after preseason, while Davis was away from the team at the same time at an NHL training camp with the Dallas Stars.
“[That line has] looked better every day,” Patrick said. “I think the chemistry is starting to come with them and they’re veteran guys who play in every situation for us and we need them to play against the top lines on other teams.
“I was happy with the way they practiced this week [and] hopefully, it will carry over.”
Ice goalie Bailey Brkin has been rock solid though, with a 0.937 save percentage and a 2.03 goals against average in two games. The team should also get their first look at 19-year-old Kurtis Chapman over the weekend.
As opposed to Spokane, the Edmonton Oil Kings are entering the weekend at 0-2 after having lost a pair of games to the Red Deer Rebels last weekend. Before facing the Ice, the Oil Kings have a home-and-home against the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Edmonton is led by sophomore Trey Fix-Wolansky who has four points this year and plays on the team’s top line with Davis Koch and Belarusian-import Andrei Pavlenko.
Also featured on the Oil Kings roster is defenceman Fedor Rudakov, who played with Kootenay last season. Although Rudakov was a healthy scratch for the first two games of the year, there’s a chance he could make a homecoming in Cranbrook.
With three games in three days, Patrick said that the best way to ensure success on Sunday is to be smart.
“I’ll be talking [to the team] about not getting caught,” he said. “When we’ve got two guys deep in the offensive zone, our third guy is going to pull out and try and always have three guys back
“That will probably be an adjustment when you’re a little less aggressive in certain areas. We might have to change on every whistle, making sure you’re getting somewhat fresh legs out there.”
For Fleury, Sunday is, in large part, going to be about sheer determination.
“I think it’s going to come down to who wants it more,” he said. “We have a great matchup against them [and] we should be able to beat them if we play our game well. I think it just comes down to wanting it.”
The Ice’s home game against the Chiefs is at 7 p.m. tonight at Western Financial Place, Saturday’s away game will be at 8:05 p.m. and Sunday’s home game against the Oil Kings will be at 4:00 p.m.