The winds of change blew through Lethbridge at the WHL’s trade deadline, but the Kootenay Ice still only see them as one thing: a tough divisional opponent.
The Hurricanes were major sellers on Tuesday, making a blockbuster deal with the Swift Current Broncos in which they gave up 20-year-old leading scorer Giorgio Estephan, 19-year-old winger Tanner Nagel and 19-year-old goaltender Stuart Skinner for a slew of draft picks, prospects and younger players.
Skinner, a draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers, was a major part of the Ice’s struggles against Lethbridge this season. Shutting Kootenay out in their only two previous games, his absence and the turnover after the trade leaves a bit of a mystery for the Cranbrook club, as they visit the Windy City on Saturday night.
“[It’s] going to be a challenge [that their roster is so different],” said Ice head coach James Patrick. “Obviously, we’ll watch their systems and we know what they like to do, [but] my feeling is that they are going to have more young, hungry players in the line-up that are going to present a really big challenge.”
Coming over in the trade to the ‘Canes are several exciting young players including 2016 fourth-overall draft pick Logan Barlage, and 17-year-old forward Owen Blocker. The team also acquired, at the deadline, overager Brad Morrison, from the Vancouver Giants, who led them (with two goals) to a 6-5 shootout win over the Red Deer Rebels in his first game with them on Tuesday night.
In net, Logan Flodell has taken the reigns from Skinner and earned a 29-save win in his first start since leaving Swift Current.
“They traded away a lot of their good players, but we have to come out with the same attitude [as always] and work hard,” said Ice captain Colton Kroeker, who was acquired by Kootenay from Lethbridge during last year’s trade deadline. “We obviously can’t take them lightly. It’s going to be a tough game.”
The major focus for the Ice is on their own team. Not big participants in the deadline madness, the team is searching for answers to their 5-game losing streak within their own locker room.
With the worst power play efficiency in the league and seven shorthanded goals let in over the past nine games, the man advantage has been a definite focus for Patrick this week at practice.
“Special teams is such a big part of the game [and] it’s an area, over the whole course of the year, that we need to get better at,” he said. “We’ve seen some improvements come in spurts, but we still need work… I think one unit on our special teams has produced for us, with Peyton [Krebs], Brett Davis and Cam Hausinger in front. Our other unit, we’ve just got to get them on the same page and get them to start working.”
As for the number of shorthanded chances against, Patrick said that it’s an issue of mental toughness above all else, including their tendency to use four forwards and only one defenceman
“Maybe two or three weeks ago, we were pretty frustrated with it as a staff and we decided to go with two defencemen and nothing really changed,” he said. “We still gave up the opportunities. [So] it’s a mentality as anything. We cannot get on the wrong side of the puck.
“We have to match the penalty killer’s desperation and work ethic and compete and have a little awareness of what’s happening… It’s been frustrating, but [it’s] just young players trying to learn and trying to move forward.
Following a very difficult stretch that included five games in six nights, the coach tried to take full advantage of what will, most likely, be their last opportunity for significant teaching outside of game situations.
“This is the last situation where we have a week of practice for the year and then you’re almost into the stretch drive,” Patrick explained. “Once you get to the end of this month and into February, [our schedule] is super busy, [so] we want to go over all different areas: fine tune our defensive zone [and] neutral zone; [decide] what to do on a 6-on-5 or a 5-versus-6 to end the games… so, just try and touch on a lot of different subjects.”
After 42 games, the Ice have 39 points and are in third place in the Central Division with the Hurricanes, who have played 41 games and have 41 points. The top three teams in the division will make the playoffs and the closest current opponent behind Kootenay are the Calgary Hitmen who have 32 points in 43 games.
After a week of rest and practice, Kroeker believes that the team should be able to be very competitive in their quest to, once again, leapfrog the ‘Canes in the standings.
“There’s no excuse — it’s going to be a huge game,” he said. “We have to come out and play 100 percent.”
Following up the Saturday night game with a Sunday matinee in Cranbrook against the Saskatoon Blades, newly acquired goalie Matt Berlin should make his debut over the weekend. The team also, however, recalled 2001-born goalie Jesse Makaj on Friday.
The team’s second draft round pick in 2016, Makaj was with the team in preseason and has appeared in 11 games with the Greater Vancouver Canadians of the BC Major Midget League this season. In those 11 games, he’s posted a goals against average of 3.28 and a record of 5-6-0.
The Ice will also be greatly boosted by the return of top defenceman Martin Bodak.
Away from the team for almost a month, while participating at the U-20 World Junior Championships in Buffalo, New York where he captained Team Slovakia, Bodak brings a lot to the table.
“[Bodak] changes the look of our team quite a bit,” he said. “He’s our strongest physical defenceman, who can outmuscle guys, win battles, [and] move the puck. He can join the rush too, and he’s doing that playing 25 minutes against the [opposition’s] top two lines.”
Puck drop on Saturday night will be at 7 p.m. and the following day at Western Financial Place, the action will begin at 4 p.m.