Although it may have felt like it in the immediate aftermath, Luke Pierce said on Wednesday that the previous night’s 8-1 loss was “not the end of the world.”
The Kootenay Ice coach surprised his players after the lopsided tilt against the Medicine Hat Tigers with what he called a ‘change in the mindset’ ahead of home games against the Spokane Chiefs on Friday and the Calgary Hitmen on Saturday.
“I know [the players] are showing up today expecting to work their bags off but we’re actually going to give them a day off,” Pierce said prior to Wednesday’s scheduled practice. “It’s important to just reset. We’ve travelled a lot lately and guys [had] exams this week [so] we’re better served by just taking a break and getting back at it tomorrow.”
Immediately after the game, when asked what they expected to do in practice that week, every player in the media scrums simply answered ‘hard work’. While Pierce planned exactly that for Thursday afternoon, it was not in response to a bad effort.
“[There will be] no punishment, we’ve just got to make sure that our urgency is better.”
The day off was a decision that his players appreciated.
“The 8-1 loss wasn’t a lot of fun to be a part of but the next day, with the day off, it felt nice to just relax [and] rest up for Thursday,” said forward Colton Kroeker.
For Pierce, the loss came down to one word: unfortunate.
The coach believed that his group did a lot of the right things, they just matched up against one of the elite teams in the league who took advantage of every single mistake the Ice made.
“We’ve played worse and we’ve played better [but] I thought we did some good things against a really good hockey team [while] missing some pretty key players,” Pierce said. “We had some puck management [issues] and their game plan was pretty simple compared to what we’ve seen in the past.”
The Ice continued to be plagued by injuries on Tuesday, with captain Cale Fleury joining fellow defencemen Sam Huston and Nikita Radzivilyuk, as well as spark plug Barrett Sheen, in the press box for the night.
While Pierce said that forward Reed Morison filled in “admirably” on defence, he is hopeful that Fleury will be back for their weekend tilts.
“That [was] a huge loss for us,” Pierce said of Fleury’s absence. “He’s a guy that plays 25 to 30 minutes for us every night, and hard minutes against teams’ top lines.”
“That’s the life of junior hockey [though], everybody goes through injuries at some point and it highlights the importance of certain players when they’re not there.”
When it comes to this weekend’s games, Pierce knows that Spokane and Calgary are both teams with a lot to play for right now, but is cautious about focusing too much on other teams strengths and weaknesses.
“[We’ve got] two opponents who are both very similar [and] starting to play a lot better as they hunt for that final playoff spot,” he said. “We know that they’re going to be hungry coming in and we’ve got to shift some of the focus back to our own team and make sure that we’re tightening up some areas and not emphasizing our opponents as much as we have been.”
Both Spokane and Calgary are just one spot out of their respective Wild Card races, with the Chiefs one point behind the Portland Winterhawks for the Western Conference’s final spot and the Hitmen four points back of the Saskatoon Blades for a slot in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Against Spokane on Friday, Pierce expects to start rookie goaltender Jakob Walter who has played exceptionally against the Chiefs.
In three starts against them, all in Spokane, Walter has a 0.911 save percentage while facing a whopping 124 shots against. While he only has one win, it came in a thrilling shootout in which he stopped nine of nine shots.
“It feels good to [start] against a team that I’ve played a lot against,” Walter said. “It’ll be good to be back home, it’s been awhile.”
The last time Walter started at home for the Ice was back on December 17, in an 8-1 loss to the Kamloops Blazers where he was pulled after giving up 5 goals in 26 minutes.
With the success he’s had against Spokane recently, he shouldn’t have to worry about another night like that.
“I’ve gotten used to them and their style of play,” he said of his comfort with the Chiefs. “[I know] their players and have seen what they do all the time and on the power play.”
Following the home ice back-to-back, Kootenay will play a home-and-home with the Tigers. Although the series between the Central Division leaders and bottom-feeder has been a mismatch in their four prior meetings this season, Pierce isn’t overly concerned about the prospect of playing Medicine Hat again.
“[We just need] patience and better puck management,” he said. “We did a lot of things right, [we] didn’t take [too many] penalties and we got power play opportunities from attacking. Our power play needs to be better, our penalty kill needs to be sharp, and we need some important saves.”
Puck drop is at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, with both games being played at home at Western Financial Place.