A night after their most well-attended game of the year, the Kootenay Ice played in front of another large, excited crowd on Saturday night.
With Rogers Hometown Hockey sweeping the city, 2,424 fans saw the Ice put in a good effort, but ultimately lose 4-1 to the Victoria Royals.
Despite the loss, the team was thrilled by the crowd’s enthusiasm and thought, for the most part, that they delivered a good performance.
“The energy in the building was unbelievable, having so many come out and support the game makes you want to come out and play harder every day,” said Jake Elmer, who scored the Ice’s lone goal. “[Our] guys were battling all night, hitting and getting pucks on the net, which is what we needed.”
After a special ceremonial puck drop from Hometown host Tara Slone, the game got off to a bumpy start for Kootenay.
Just over a minute into the game, the Royals found the back of the net with Regan Nagy beating Payton Lee on a low corner shot.
The play was reviewed, however, and after a long delay, it was ruled that the puck had been passed with a high stick and was waved off.
Less than three minutes later though, Nagy got one in for keeps, going up high on a power play. Assists went to Ryan Gagnon and Scott Walford.
Despite getting down early for the second straight night, the Ice once again kept competing.
Midway through the first period, the Ice tied up the contest on a man-advantage of their own. During the 5-on-4, Jake Elmer roofed the puck from a sharp angle after being fed by Dallas Hines and Austin Wellsby.
All squared at one apiece, the second period was competitive but saw the Royals take a lead. Eight minutes into the middle frame, Jack Walker came flying out of the penalty box and capitalized on the rebound of his own shot.
Although Kootenay never gave up the fight, an unfortunate bounce allowed the Royals to put the nail in the coffin in the middle of the third period.
“[We weren’t bad in the third], there was just a minor breakdown,” Elmer said. “They got a lucky bounce and it went in the net.”
After Ice players Sam Huston and Reed Morison collided in the neutral zone, Matthew Phillips took a perfect pass from Vladimir Bobylev to beat Lee five-hole.
Phillips, who is in the hunt for the WHL goal-scoring crown, ended the night with a two-on-zero breakaway in the Ice’s empty net.
Skating alongside teammate Carter Folk, both players tried to let the other finish off the play, but it was Folk who was finally forced to take credit for his eighth of the year and left Phillips with 42 and tied for third place in the league.
Although it wasn’t the outcome they wanted, head coach Luke Pierce didn’t have many qualms about the way his team competed.
“[Victoria] is a really good hockey team [and] I thought we played them well and competed from start to finish,” Pierce said. “We just didn’t have enough from our top line [but] they’re not going to be great every night.
“They’ve been pretty consistent for us and tonight wasn’t their night. We need to find ways to score in other fashions.”
All three players on the top forward unit of Vince Loschiavo, Brett Davis and Colton Kroeker were held off the scoresheet for the first time in four games, a span in which the trio combined for 18 points.
Despite the lack of production from their best scorers, Pierce was once again happy with the play of his young role guys, especially when it came to blocking shots.
“[Our] shot blocks were coming from the kids that played their butts off all night,” Pierce said, mentioning, in particular, Kaeden and Keenan Taphorn, Tanner Sidaway, Michael King and Austin Wellsby. “They’re embracing their roles and identities as players [and] I thought [they] competed right until the end.
“Shot blocking is one thing we’ve been mentioning lately that we need to improve upon and they’re doing a better job.”
Lee was also a fan of the improvement in that area.
“Anytime guys are putting their bodies on the line in front of me, it’s important,” the goalie said. “I can’t thank them enough for that.”
Lee made 34 saves and was once again one of the team’s best players. With 17-year-old backup Jakob Walter making 28 the night before in a win, Pierce is confident in his last line of defence.
“They’ve been fairly consistent all year for us,” he said. “[Walter] has had his ups and downs, as any 17-year -old does. It was great for him to get the win last night [and] I thought he played really well.”
“Then, today Payton did what Payton does. He gave us a chance to win. He was great playing the puck and it’s unfortunate that we couldn’t put the right result in.”
The most positive trend however, according to the coach and players, is the morale in the locker room. According to Pierce there’s been a shift in the last month and a half which has helped increase the team’s play substantially.
“There never seems to be an issue with their mood or morale [and] last night and tonight, they realised they did some good things and they started to feel better about themselves,” he said. “Tonight was another lesson for us. Our top guys weren’t going well and they need to be supportive of their teammates.
“I think they got frustrated with themselves at times. They really hurt us on the power play. They need to support their teammates who are out there working hard. That’s another step in the right direction.”
Elmer agreed, and said that the group is becoming a very close unit.
“We’re beginning to bond much better than we were,” he said. “We’re just having a lot more fun coming to the rink. It’s an awesome experience coming to the rink every day and hanging out with your best friends.”
The team will get even more time together. Joining in on the Hometown Hockey fun, all of Kootenay’s players will be signing autographs between 3 and 5 p.m. tomorrow afternoon on Baker Street.
“I’m excited [because] I have three small kids and it’s going to be awesome to have them come down,” Pierce said. It’s something that you don’t always get to experience. I certainly didn’t get to experience it as a kid. I’m just excited to see my boys out there with it [and] I think [the players] are going to turn into little kids when they get out there too.
“It’s going to be a great day and it’s a fantastic event.”
Following Sunday’s autograph session, the Ice have a week off before returning to action against the Red Deer Rebels on the road next Friday.
To keep the momentum, Elmer believes that practices will become even more vital than ever.
“We’ve got to be really hard in practice, make hard passes [and] make good plays,” he said. “We’ve got to be flying out there in practice. You practice how you play. If we have a real energetic practice this week and just get better as a team, we can bring that energy into the next game.”