There is no doubt that the Kootenay Ice were in Saturday night’s game until the bitter end.
Whether they were there at the bitter start, however, is up for debate.
Playing against the Spokane Chiefs at home, the Ice escaped a lopsided first period with a small lead before eventually falling 5-4. While the team improved as the game went along, lack of discipline and mental strength cost them a winnable game.
According to head coach James Patrick, from the moment the puck dropped, his entire bench wasn’t all there.
“I don’t question our work ethic, [but] I think a lot of guys were afraid to play,” Patrick said. “They have high-end players and I think we had a number of guys who were just scared [of] that.
“[Spokane] had the skill coming in and you can respect it, but then you’ve got to still compete and work against it and play it hard. So, even though we came out with a lead in the first period, I just felt that we were on our heels.”
The Chiefs were 9-7-1-2 heading into the night, and had just recently had star forward Kailer Yamamoto returned to their lineup from the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.
Reinvigorated, they were looking to seize an opportunity against a depleted Kootenay side, who were missing several forwards to injury, including their top point-producer Colton Kroeker.
Coming out of the gate hot, the Chiefs dominated the game’s first period outshooting the Ice 22-5 generating several grade-A scoring chances.
While Yamamoto led the charge with two partial breakaways, Ice goalie Kurtis Chapman was sensational early on to keep his team from getting down.
After being pinned in their own zone for the majority of the first frame, Kootenay surprisingly broke the game’s scoring with a minute remaining when Cam Hausinger took a pass from Brett Davis and connected with the top corner of the net.
Early in the second, Hausinger beat Dawson Weatherill again as Colton Veloso found him in front of the net from the corner.
“It’s [the second straight game] where he’s been probably our best forward,” Patrick said of Hausinger. “He’s not afraid [and] he showed it. Playing against high-level competition, he was our most energetic guy.
“He made some good plays [and was] involved in all aspects of the game. He’s definitely the one guy that has risen to the challenge and stepped up with the increased opportunity.”
After being rewarded for their slow start, the Ice were punished by Spokane who quickly answered Hausinger’s goals by potting two short-handed goals.
Los Angeles Kings prospect Jaret Anderson-Dolan had the first, as he beat Chapman on a two-on-one assisted by Hudson Elynuik.
A minute later and still down a man, the Chiefs put in another with Anderson-Dolan feeding Elynuik on a cross-crease pass to tie the game.
“It was the two short-handed goals that killed us,” said Ice defenceman Ryan Pouliot. “Those are things that we can’t [afford to] give up. Spokane lives off the short-handed goals and we gave them two easy ones.”
Midway through the period, Zach Fischer put a loose puck in the crease helped by both Elynuik and Anderson-Dolan, and gave the Chiefs their first lead.
Pouliot put in his first goal of the year minutes later, ripping a blast from Keenan Taphorn to even the scoring.
“I was jumping up into the play there and beat the high forward on the other team,” Pouliot said. “I just got it on net and was lucky enough to get it in the net.”
Going into the third period at three goals apiece, Spokane quickly put an end to the tie.
Scoring on a power play just 42 seconds in, Nolan Reid converted off a faceoff in the Kootenay zone. Ten minutes later, Reid found the back of the net again as he wired a slapshot from defensive partner Ty Smith making it 5-3.
“[Chapman] had a great first period, [but] when [our goalies] don’t get as much work, play drops off a bit,” Patrick said. “I think he definitely should have had one of the last three goals, but overall we got out-chanced and outshot, so it certainly wasn’t on him.”
Adding some drama at the end, with less than two minutes in the game, Alec Baer cut to the Chiefs net and stuffed home a crowd-pleasing solo effort, but even with their net empty Kootenay couldn’t force a tie.
“I thought we were definitely going to tie it up there, I think all the guys on the team thought we were too,” Pouliot said. “That awesome goal that Baer got, we were all hoping for another one.”
According to Patrick, despite their struggles during the early stages of the game, the team could have been victorious with a few changes.
“In the last ten minutes, we took a penalty [that] we didn’t need to, but the game was [still] there,” the coach said. “I thought the last six minutes, we were really pressing, we were getting looks, we were pinching our defence.
“[But] you need a play. Alec Baer gave us a play. He gave us a high-end play [and] we need that from some of our other top guys.”
Patrick explained that, while he was pleased with the performance of a lot of his team’s young players who have been in expanded roles since the team’s injury troubles, the Ice’s veterans haven’t done enough.
“We’re not getting [the high-end plays] from some of our veterans guys who are expected to lead [and] are given the most amount of ice time,” he said. “We need it from Brett Davis… we need someone to step up.”
Overall though, Patrick believes that his team is good enough to beat the Chiefs and is hopeful that his players will develop that same confidence moving forward.
“I don’t want to talk about moral victories in a loss, but if we had doubt in ourselves to start the game, I hope it was erased by the end of the game,” he said. “Yeah, they’ve got some good players and they have a guy who was in the NHL, but do you want to stand around and watch them or do you want to compete against them?
“I hope [they] learned that by the end of the game, [they could].”
The Chiefs were led statistically by Elynuik who had a goal and four assists, while Hausinger was Kootenay’s star with two goals.
Weatherill had 23 saves on 27 shots in his win and Chapman made 34 stops on 39 shots in the loss.
Having now been beaten in their past three games, the Ice will look to get their season back on track in Medicine Hat on Tuesday. In their only meeting so far this year, the Tigers crushed Kootenay 11-1.
With a 12-6-0-0 record, Medicine Hat is the top team in the WHL’s Central Division, while the Ice continue to cling to a tie for second place with an 8-11-1-0 record.
ICE CHIPS: Missing the past two weeks of Ice action to play with Team Canada Red at the World U17 Challenge Cup, Peyton Krebs’ tournament came to end on Friday night with his team winning a silver medal. Despite losing 6-4 in the championship game to the United States, Krebs had a goal and five assists in five games. Teammate Bowen Byram, a defenseman from Cranbrook, had a goal and four assists.