For almost 40 minutes, it looked like it might just be Payton Lee’s night.
The 20-year Cranbrook native is playing in the final week of his WHL career and despite being the team’s undisputed MVP this season, he has not picked up a shutout for his hometown team.
Unfortunately, after a sensational start for Lee, where he made 19 saves through two periods, another lackluster team performance caught up with him and the Ice lost 3-2 in overtime.
“There are a few guys who recognize that [these are Lee’s last few games] and care enough to want to work for a teammate [but] there are some other guys that I’m not even sure they know why they’re still playing,” said head coach Luke Pierce after the loss.
“[Lee’s] been a character guy for us all year and he gave us a great chance tonight [but] we didn’t have enough in front of him.”
While Pierce thought that his team had some opportunities and at times controlled the puck better than the Oil Kings, overall he did not feel that they earned their bounces.
“At this point you’re playing for pride and if that’s the way [we] play for pride, it’s concerning to me,” the coach said. “There are a lot of emotions going on but at the end of the day, their best players were better than our best players.
“Outside of our defencemen — and Barrett Sheen and Reed Morison — I didn’t really like a whole lot from the rest of our group.”
Although Pierce didn’t like the way the team practiced on Monday and thought that it lead into the outcome of the game, the Ice were the ones who had the early advantage.
After a cagey opening period that ended in a scoreless draw, Brett Davis scored the game’s first goal just a minute into the middle frame.
Taking a pass from captain Cale Fleury, Davis beat Oil Kings’ goalie Josh Dechaine with a shot right in front of the net.
Although the team managed to keep the game tied until the end of the period, the rink started to tilt in Edmonton’s favour in the latter portion.
Although Lee kept the Ice in the lead for awhile with a slew of impressive saves and risky maneuvers, a squeaker from Tyson Gruninger sent them into the locker room tied and demoralized.
In the third, the Ice almost reclaimed their lead immediately, but Vince Loschiavo was robbed by Dechaine’s glove on a break 40 seconds in. Five minutes later however, Kaeden Taphorn walked in and created a perfect rebound for Jake Elmer to send to the back of the net.
It would only be two minutes later, however, that Davis Koch put a long wrister past Lee to tie the game and force an eventual overtime.
In the extra five minute period, the Ice were out of sorts and quickly allowed Colton Kehler to score a game-winner for the Oil Kings.
Davis, who was on the ice for the final goal, didn’t think the team had it’s best night. “We have to shoot the puck more and play with some more pace,” the team’s top centreman said. “There’s no question we’re in a little bit of a slump right now, [but] everyone knows it’s big to finish the year off strong, so that’s what we’re going to try to do in these last few games.”
While Pierce agreed that it wasn’t their night, he didn’t fault the players for not shooting more.
“In [their] defence, we’ve spent a lot of time in the last few weeks really trying to be a little bit smarter in our shot selection,” he said. “We’re still working through that and if you look at the shots we had, there were some quality chances.”
“Our guys are caught in between what we’re trying to teach and the way they have to [just put bodies and pucks to the net] at times.”
Pierce hopes that the team can have a better effort against the Lethbridge Hurricanes on the road tonight. Although the ‘Canes have clinched second in the Central Division and the Ice have guaranteed last place in the league, the game will have special significance for two players.
Colton Kroeker and Davis will be returning to the ENMAX centre for the first time since January, when they were traded from Lethbridge to Kootenay, and should have additional pride to motivate them.
“I would expect Davis and Kroeker to be better,” Pierce said on the duo’s return to their former team’s arena. “I didn’t think they were good today and hopefully they [can be] the spark that we need and guys can pick up and follow along with them.”
Davis is also expecting to feed off the unique scenario.
“[Kroeker] and I have had that one circled on the calendar for quite awhile now and there’s no question [that] we’re excited about it,” he said. “Kootenay has a pretty good record against Lethbridge [too] so we have some confidence going in [there].”
Lee ended the night with 32 saves on 35 shots, and will now likely have only one more opportunity to play in front of the Cranbrook faithful.
Following tomorrow night’s game in Lethbridge, the Ice will return home for their final game of the season at Western Financial Place on Friday against the Calgary Hitmen. They will then finish the year in Calgary, on Saturday night.