With the way the Kootenay Ice have played at home this year, there’s little for them to be worried about while in Cranbrook.
The team has a 4-2-1-0 record at Western Financial Place and have a three-game win streak at their own barn, including two recent upsets over a couple of the WHL’s top teams.
However, while the Ice managed to hand both the Swift Current Broncos and Moose Jaw Warriors their second losses of the season in the past two weeks, they will not be taking the visiting Regina Pats lightly tonight.
“[Regina] was the preseason favourite to win the league [so] we know they’re a good team,” said head coach James Patrick after Monday’s practice. “They’re another team with a great first line [and] Sam Steel is an elite player in this league and a first round [NHL draft] pick.
“They’re going to give us all we can handle [and] we’re going to have to be really good.”
As this year’s Memorial Cup hosts and last year’s regular season champions, the Pats have a lot of weapons at their disposal, but haven’t lived up to their potential so far in 2017-18.
In 13 games, Regina is 7-5-1-0 and are coming into Cranbrook fresh off a 5-2 loss to the 5-5-1-1 Vancouver Giants.
So far this season, former-Medicine Hat Tigers forward Matt Bradley is leading the team in points with 22, while Finnish-import Emil Oksanen has 17 points and Steel has 15 points.
“They’ve got good speed [and] Steel is a really good skater,” Patrick said. “We’ll try and get [Cale] Fleury and [Martin] Bodak on the ice when those top guys are on.
“I feel we can play against any opposing team’s lines. Cale is a top end defenseman [who] can [stop] the best players.”
While Steel led the WHL in points last year with 131 in just 66 games, Bradley was a true Ice-killer with 10 points in seven games against Kootenay in 2017-18.
According to Ice defenceman Dallas Hines, despite the talent on the Pats roster, there is plenty of confidence in the Ice locker room.
“We’re confident in the team [that] we are and the coaches are confident in us,” Hines explained. “It’s going to be a really close game [and come down to who] wants it more. I think with the guys we have in this locker room, we can definitely pull out a win.”
After following up last Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Moose Jaw with an 11-1 thrashing in Medicine Hat, however, Patrick is not taking anything for granted.
“For a team like us, we have to get over any feelings of accomplishment or any bit of complacency because we’re not a good enough consistent team yet,” the coach explained. “I know we’ve played some good games at home, but we’ve got to avoid the letdowns at all costs.
“Confidence, you have to earn. No one can give [us] confidence outside of [the team] going out there and proving it and showing themselves.”
In addition to the team’s home winning streak, the game will also have special significance to two particular players on each side.
Two weeks ago, the Ice traded young forward Tanner Sidaway to the Pats in exchange for veteran Jeff de Wit and tonight will be the first games for each of them against their former teams.
Since coming over from Regina, de Wit has had an immediate impact with two goals in five games with Kootenay, while Sidaway has found himself in a third-line role with the Pats.
The Ice could also have a new goaltender in the building, as they brought in 17-year-old Duncan McGovern from Medicine Hat yesterday. According to Patrick, the hope is that McGovern’s presence pushes his other netminders.
“It’s just going to increase the competition, that’s all [his acquisition is] doing,” Patrick said. “It’s more depth in that position for the organization, but it’s going to be a competition for ice time [as well].
“We’ve had some good outings from our goalies, from both Bailey [Brkin] and Kurtis [Chapman]. I’d like to see their practice habits get a lot better [though]… this is just about bringing in someone else for three guys to compete for that spot.”
As for the game plan against Regina, it will very similar to what they brought in their last few wins.
“I think the last five games or so, we’ve been better defensively in the offensive zone,” Patrick said. “We’ve got a little more motion [and] allowed guys to play one-on-one down low and I thought we’ve done a really good job of spreading pucks low to high, getting net front, getting a high forward, just trying to spread out the defense.”
Facing the WHL’s seventh-best power play (26.2%), Patrick also stressed the ongoing importance of remaining disciplined.
“I thought the discipline was better [but there were] a couple of tough calls last game,” he said. “[Swift Current] had four power plays [and] they scored on three of them [because] they’re the best power play and best offensive team in the league.”
Kootenay’s power play, on the other hand, is second last in the WHL (13.7%) and their penalty kill is 13th (77.2%) while the Pats is third last (70.2%).
“[I didn’t like] our kills [last game],” Patrick said. “Too many bad habits, sticks in the air, shots [that] should not get through on a power play. Forwards should be in the shot lane and the defence should step up and block before it even gets to the net.”
With 12 games under their belt, the Ice have spread out scoring with overager Colton Kroeker and 16-year-old rookie Peyton Krebs tied for the team-lead in points with 11 each. Vince Loschiavo, Brett Davis, Alec Baer, Barrett Sheen and Martin Bodak are then tied in second with 7 points.
Despite a couple of difficult road outings, the Ice haven’t lost a single game at home by more than one goal. According to Hines, every chance to impress the Cranbrook crowd is an opportunity that him and his teammates want to take advantage of.
“We just feed off the crowd, feed off the atmosphere. We come here ready to play and we don’t want to let anyone down,” he said. “It’s been different from the past couple of years here, so it’s a pretty cool experience for sure.”
As the standings currently sit, the Ice are one spot out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, while the Pats are the top Wild Card seed. Puck drop between the two teams is at 7 p.m. tonight at Western Financial Place.