After a fairly easy portion of the schedule in which the Kootenay Ice (8-23-7-1) only played three games in 18 days, the team is back to the grind this weekend with three back-to-back.
The Ice face the Spokane Chiefs (19-14-3-1) tonight at Western Financial Place for the first of a home-and-home series that concludes on Saturday night. On Sunday, they’ll return to Cranbrook to play their one and only contest of the year against the Vancouver Giants (16-20-1-2).
In their three games in between Christmas and New Year, the Ice picked up two wins including a big 4-1 defeat of the Red Deer Rebels on the road last Friday.
“We’re going to take [this stretch] one game at a time. We’ll deal with Friday and do everything we can to get the win to start the weekend,” Pierce said. “There will be no excuse come Sunday, because our opponent we’ll be in the same situation and we’ll have the luxury of being back on home ice.”
While both the Chiefs and the Giants are at the bottom of the standings in the WHL’s Western Conference, according to Pierce their placement can be deceiving.
“That’s a very strong conference. We’ve seen the majority of teams from the [West] and there’s nobody that’s a true weak link,” he said. “We’ve played Spokane already [and] had a good game with them. We know that they’re a hard-working team.”
Although they’ve only faced each other once so far this season, Kootenay already has plenty of motivation to beat Spokane. On December 9, the Chiefs handed the Ice a heartbreaking loss when they scored with just over a minute left in the game to win 4-3.
“I thought we did a lot of really good things [in our last game against Spokane],” he said. “It was a tough way to end the game with a mistake late in our end but our special teams [were great] — our power play was good, our penalty kill was perfect. Most nights if you do that on the road you’re going to win hockey games.
“We have to make a couple of slight adjustments but the main ingredient for that opponent is our work ethic and we have to be ready to match and try to out-compete them.”
Despite a less than ideal record through their first 38 games, the Chiefs are not lacking in firepower. Third-year winger Kailer Yamamoto leads the team and is eleventh in the league in points with 50 in 32 games. His older brother Keanu is also a point-per-game player with 37 in 38 games, while centreman Hudson Elynuik has 40 points in 33 games.
The Ice have struggled so far with teams from the Western Conference, and especially the BC division.
BC teams have beaten up on Kootenay with Prince George, Kelowna and Kamloops all beating the Ice by three goals or more in their meetings this year.
“It’s always different when you’re seeing teams that you don’t normally play and you don’t know a lot about,” Pierce said. “I thought we played really well against Prince George. We had a couple of tough games with Kelowna and Kamloops, but other than that [we’ve been good against the West].”
Vancouver should be a better matchup for the Ice. The Giants are in last place in their conference with a 0.449 winning percentage and are in danger of missing the playoffs for a third straight year.
Their game against the Ice on Sunday afternoon will be their third consecutive match, as they play in Red Deer on Friday and Medicine Hat on Saturday.
Offensively, the Giants are led by Edmonton Oilers prospect Tyler Benson (42 points in 33 games), New York Rangers prospect Ty Ronning (30 points in 35 games), and Chicago Blackhawks prospect Radovan Bondra (29 points in 29 games).
Despite that skill, the Giants are one of only two teams with a less productive power play than the Ice only converting on 14.2% of man-advantage chances this season.
While the Ice aren’t much better with a 15.6% conversion rate, the Spokane Chiefs are remarkably good on the power play scoring 22.3% of the time, good enough for ninth in the league.
“Special teams are going to be [very] important,” Pierce said. “[Spokane’s] power play is really good and we’ve got to be disciplined and find ways to capitalize on our own chances.”
With three straight games, the Ice should start both of their goalies over the weekend. Backup Jakob Walter hasn’t seen action since December 17 and was pulled in his last start, so he should be motivated to perform.
“[Walter] has had a good little break and had a chance to work with Jamie [McCaig], our goalie coach, this week,” Pierce said. “They fine-tuned some things and he’ll likely start Saturday in Spokane. He played really well last time he was down there so he should feel comfortable.”
Payton Lee, on the other hand, has been brilliant recently. He made 41 saves in Kootenay’s win last Friday including several incredible game-saving blocks
Puck drop against Spokane is at 7 p.m tonight at Western Financial Place.