All eyes were on number 25 as the Kootenay Ice went out for their pregame warm-up on Friday night.
Playing in his first ever WHL game, Connor McClennon took a lap by himself before he was joined by his teammates.
While it was an exciting night for the 15-year-old, who was drafted second overall during the summer’s Bantam Draft, the Prince Albert Raiders spoiled the party once the puck dropped.
The visiting Raiders scored four goals in the opening period and created a hole that the Ice couldn’t dig themselves out of.
“It’s pretty tough, [but] I really liked the last two periods,” said head coach James Patrick, following the loss. “I liked the work ethic of a lot of guys in the whole game, [but] I thought there were some plays that we were really soft on.”
Despite outshooting Prince Albert 39 to 29, the effects of their slow start were too much for them to make up.
“We lost some battles early [and] we didn’t box out [in the first period],” Patrick said. “We let a guy skate right from the corner to the front of the net and put a puck in the back of the net [and] that’s really bad hockey.”
The Raiders opened the game’s scoring eight and a half minutes into the game with Justin Nachbaur poking in a point shot rebound past Bailey Brkin.
A minute later, Sean Montgomery grabbed a puck in the slot and backhanded another goal. Nachbaur then scored again a few minutes later, after exiting the penalty box to an odd-man two-on-one and popped Brkin’s water bottle.
Before the period ended, Cole Fonstad scored his seventh goal of the year on a power play as he walked in from the corner and made it a 4-0 game.
After giving up four goals on only six shots, Brkin was replaced to start the second period by Duncan McGovern.
“I didn’t like [Brkin] on all of them, let’s put it that way,” Patrick said.
In the second, the team turned their fortunes around. After killing a pair of early penalties, the Ice got a few chances on the man-advantage.
With a 5-on-3 at the midway point of the frame, Alec Baer found Dallas Hines who slapped a puck past Ian Scott and brought the Cranbrook crowd to life.
Minutes later, Baer scored a goal of his own as he walked into the crease and slid the puck past Scott to cut the lead in half.
While the Ice had a chance to make it a one-goal game with a point blank chance for Cale Fleury, luck was not on Kootenay’s side. Moments later, Spencer Moe drove to the net and knocked McGovern and the puck into the back of the net for the Raiders fifth tally of the night.
Although the Ice bench had a long conversation with the referee, the goal stood, as it was determined that Ice defenceman Sam Huston had actually caused Moe to make contact with the netminder.
“It could have been 4-3,” Patrick said. “[But] it’s a could have, should have, would have…which means nothing.”
In the final period, the Ice played well and were the better team, but it was too late to make a difference on the scoreboard.
Colton Veloso streaked in and beat Scott to make it a 5-3 game at the midway point. Unfortunately, that ended up being the game’s final score.
“I’m not disappointed in a lot of guys’ play because I thought there were some positives,” Patrick said on the night as a whole. “Cam Hausinger played one of his best games, Ryan Pouliot played his steadiest game of the year [and] I thought Connor McClennon was very good.”
While McClennon played on the team’s fourth line with Barrett Sheen and temporary-forward Bobby Russell, Patrick believed he gave the team life and several scoring chances.
“He probably was in on three scoring chances and he was able to get some open ice,” the coach said. “He was okay along the boards in our zone [and] for a smaller guy, he got some pucks out.”
According to McClennon, playing with the Kootenay Ice in a regular season game for the first time was an amazing experience.
“Getting out in front of the hometown crowd and [having] the guys make me feel like I’m a part of the team [was] the best part,” McClennon said. “It’s a super fast league, [so I had] to adjust to the pace and keep it simple at the start of the game.
“After that I kind of settled down and got the monkey off my shoulders.”
McClennon, who was called up to the team due to a number of injuries to Kootenay’s forwards including top point-producer Colton Kroeker and alternate captain Vince Loschiavo, will get another chance with the Ice tomorrow as the team hosts the Spokane Chiefs.
After splitting a home-and-home series with Spokane at the start of the season, Kootenay will have their hands full with a very strong Chiefs squad.
Star forward Kailer Yamamoto is back with the team, after spending the start of the year with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, and is already setting a breakneck pace.
On Friday in Lethbridge, he led his team to a 6-3 win with a goal and three assists.
“They’re playing really well right now and they have the best player in the league back with them, so [it’s] going to be a tougher challenge tomorrow,” Patrick said. “From the drop of the puck, we have to come with the right intensity, the right commitment to defence, [as well as] the commitment to battle.”
As for their plan to stop Yamamoto, the coach is counting on his veterans to step up in a big way.
“It’s going to be a big challenge for guys like Fleury, Baer, [Brett] Davis and Keenan [Taphorn],” Patrick explained. “Davis has to be the best two way player he can [be] because not only do they have Yamamoto, but they have a lot of other good players too.
“You have to know when you’re on the ice with those guys [and] keep the pucks in their end. That’s the best way to play defence.”
Leading the team with a goal and an assist in Friday’s loss, Alec Baer knows that his team needs to have a more complete effort on Saturday.
“We’ve got to be better [and] play a full 60 against them,” Baer said. “They’ve got a couple of guys that definitely can play the game at a high level and if we get caught sleeping, like we did today, it could be 10-0 after the first.
“We’ve got to come out and work hard every period and I think we’ll be okay.”
Puck drop for tomorrow’s game is at 7 p.m. at Western Financial Place.
ICE CHIPS: In addition to Kroeker and Loschiavo, the team was also missing forward Jeff de Wit (lower body injury), defenceman Loeden Schaufler (upper body injury) and Peyton Krebs, who is playing with Team Canada Red at the World U-17 Hockey Challenge. After winning in the semifinals on Friday against the Czech Republic, Krebs and Canada Red will face the United States in the gold medal game tomorrow in Dawson Creek, B.C.