The Kootenay Ice will be looking to put an end to their longest goalless drought of the season over the weekend, without some of their top offensive threats.
Shut out by the Brandon Wheat Kings in their last game, the team has now gone five consecutive periods without finding the back of the net.
Injuries to top point-producer Colton Kroeker (lower body, two to three weeks), along with Jeff de Wit (lower body, one week) and Vince Loschiavo (upper body, day-to-day) will impact the team as they face the Prince Albert Raiders tomorrow and the Spokane Chiefs on Saturday, as will the continued absence of star rookie Peyton Krebs, who has spent the last two weeks with Team Canada Red at the World U-17 Hockey Challenge.
“We’ve got some changes to our line-up [which means] different guys in different roles [and] different players on the power play,” said head coach James Patrick. “It just has to be our hatred of losing games and our will to work as hard as we can [that will carry us through].
“If we have that frame of mind, play with some structure, and play well in the defensive zone, I think that gives us a chance to win.”
Against the Prince Albert Raiders, who Patrick calls “one of the best teams in the league right now”, he will be relying on veterans like captain Cale Fleury, import Martin Bodak and Dallas Stars-prospect Brett Davis to lead the way.
“I know Prince Albert has some good young defensemen, [so we need to] establish some sort of forecheck and try to get pucks behind them,” he said. “[If we can] make them skate all the way back instead of turning over pucks in the neutral zone, I think that can [be effective].”
To bolster their front lines, the Ice have called up 2017 second-overall Bantam Draft selection Connor McClennon from the CSSHL’s Northern Alberta X-Treme Prep on ‘an emergency basis’.
While Patrick is hopeful that the 15-year-old can have a positive WHL debut, he won’t put too much responsibility on his shoulders.
“I’m not going to be asking too much [of him],” the coach said. “He might be able to give us a little luck on the power play because we’re missing three guys who usually play there, [but] it’s just his first taste in the league.
“It’s going to be important for our veterans to be the guys carrying the load.”
In 12 games with the X-Treme this season, McClennon has 19 points. He was also the top goal scorer at the WHL Cup last month, with six tallies and four assists for Team Alberta in their silver medal performance.
In an article published on the Ice’s website, the 5’9 forward said playing his first regular season game will be ‘a super cool experience.’
“I’ll just be going out there [and] doing what I do, working hard and trying to just be a positive guy on the bench and keep the guys going,” McClennon explained. “It’ll just be cool to kind of be a part of it for a couple days and [it will] be a good learning curve for me.”
While both the Ice and Raiders have been in similar rebuilding-situations for the past two seasons, Friday night could be a big step in the matchup’s evolution.
After finishing last season as the bottom two teams in the Eastern Conference standings, both teams are currently in playoff spots with an 8-9-1-0 record for Kootenay and a 7-6-3-0 record for Prince Albert.
Both teams also have the distinction of having beat the Moose Jaw Warriors and Swift Current Broncos — the top two teams in winning percentage in the league — this season. The Raiders are coming into Friday night on a two-game winning streak, after having played both Saskatchewan powerhouses last weekend.
“I know they’re playing extremely well,” Patrick said. “They play, compete and work as hard as any team I’ve seen. They work so hard in the neutral zone and give you so little time and space, that it’s tough to get pucks into their zone.”
Leading the Raiders in points this season, is 20-year-old forward Jordy Stallard who has 12 goals and 15 assists in 16 games. 2000-born Cole Fonstad has also had a breakout year with six goals and 17 assists in 16 games.
While the coach is focused on one game at a time, Saturday’s tilt against Spokane will be another big test.
The Chiefs are 8-7-1-2 to kick off the season and have recently had their top player, Kailer Yamamoto, return to the lineup after nine very successful games with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.
Despite Spokane being winless in their past four games, Yamamoto’s return alongside current top-scorer Hudson Elynuik, Los Angeles Kings prospect Jaret Anderson-Dolan, and top defensive prospect Ty Smith, provides an intimidating outlook for Kootenay.
In net, the Ice have three reliable options with puckstoppers Kurtis Chapman, Bailey Brkin and Duncan McGovern all competing for time. They each played a single game over the team’s recent three-game road trip and impressed the coaching staff.
“I was happy with all three games,” Patrick said. “[In] the Regina game, the score would have been worse had it not been for Chapman [and both] our [other] goalies were stars in Brandon.”
Puck drop for Friday’s game against the Raiders will be at 7:00 p.m. at Western Financial Place. Saturday’s match will be at the same time and place against the Chiefs.
ICE CHIPS: In addition to the four missing forwards, defenceman Loeden Schaufler is expected to miss the next three weeks with an ongoing upper body injury.