“Load up on DVDs and video games and you’ll be fine.”
That was Kootenay Ice head coach James Patrick’s advice to his young players who had never experienced a lengthy WHL road trip.
The team left on Thursday for a two-game swing in Saskatchewan, where they’ll play the 4-0 Moose Jaw Warriors on Friday night and the 3-0 Swift Current Broncos on Saturday.
While the nine-hour bus ride won’t have too much effect on the team’s veterans, it’ll be a new experience for some younger players and European imports.
“We’re leaving a day before, so we’ll get acclimatized [and] have a morning skate on Friday,” Patrick said. “[We’ll] get the bus legs out of us, so I think we’ll be fine.”
Although the legs may not be a big concern, their opponents will be. Both the Warriors and the Broncos are undefeated to start the year and are considered top teams in the league.
In the CHL’s weekly top 10 rankings, Moose Jaw was named the third best team in major junior hockey and Swift Current was an honourable mention.
“[Moose Jaw has] a lot of high end skill,” Patrick said of his scouting report for Friday. “Top to bottom, they have a lot of speed up front and some real mobile defence.
“I watched their last game and they looked good on film. The record obviously shows it [too].”
The Warriors are led by experience, with 20-year-old forward Brayden Burke leading the team offensively through four games with seven points. Fellow overager Jayden Halbgewachs has also been good, with six points, and NHL prospect Noah Gregor is tied for second on the team in points, with six as well.
“They’ve got good forward lines, so I think that’ll be a good matchup for us,” said Ice forward Colton Veloso. “We’ve just got to play our game like the coach has been telling us. I think if we do everything right, play our systems and work hard, we have a good chance.”
On the blueline, Moose Jaw has a top-prospect for the 2018 NHL draft in Jett Woo. The Winnipeg born defenceman has five points in four games and is a lethal threat on the right-side.
“Moose Jaw is a highly skilled team, a fast team [and have] active defensemen,” Ice forward Cameron Hausinger added. “For us, we just have to make sure we play a good, solid, defensive game… hard work is going to be the factor — if we can break them down and put them in the deep end of the pool, we’ll have a good chance at beating them.”
For the Ice, playing a smart disciplined game will be very important, especially as the team will be missing their top defenceman, captain Cale Fleury, who is set to begin a three-game suspension on Friday.
Fleury was given a game misconduct in Kootenay’s last game on Sunday afternoon for a dangerous crosscheck he delivered to Oil Kings forward Davis Murray.
“Everyone needs to step up [and] we need to play a team game, especially with a guy like Cale out of the line-up,” Veloso said. “It’s going to be difficult, but if we play together, I think we’ll be successful.”
Although the Ice penalty kill is at the top of the league with a 95.5 percent efficiency rate, the team’s discipline has been an issue and they are tied for second in the league with 83 penalty minutes.
“You’re just flirting with disaster being one man down,” Patrick said. “We’ve shot ourselves in the foot too many times this year by [getting] third period penalties when we’ve had leads, or one goal leads or one goal down trying to get back into the game.”
According to Patrick, the weekend will be an especially big test for his defensive unit.
“Everyone moves up,” he said. “Dallas Hines has played really well for me [so] he’s probably going to have to play more minutes. Sam Huston is going to be back in the line-up [and] Ryan Pouliot is going to get a lot more minutes.
“It’s tough with the young [defence], who are just learning the league and the pace [against] guys this big and strong. You have to live with the growing pains and some of the mistakes that you’re going to see in Zac Patrick, Bobby Russell and Loeden Schaufler.”
Fleury’s absence will also require changes to the team’s power play units, as he is usually an import quarterback. Ranked 13th in the league, the man advantage has improved every game for the Ice.
Patrick has also continued to tweak his lineup. After adding Keenan Taphorn to the top line last weekend with Colton Kroeker and Vince Loschiavo, in practice this week Loschiavo was switched with Veloso and now looks primed to play with Brett Davis and Alec Baer.
Although the top six forwards and the checking line have been changed several times already this year, the third line of Peyton Krebs, Barrett Sheen and Gilian Kohler has remained a constant. Krebs, a 16-year-old rookie, currently leads the team in points with seven in five games.
While the team is focused on Moose Jaw, the Saturday game against Swift Current will also be a challenge.
Broncos’ centre Tyler Steenbergen has 11 points in three games and is one of the top scorers in the WHL, so far this season. Overager Glenn Gawdin and last year’s rookie of the year, Aleksi Heponiemi, both have also contributed highly with nine points.
The game will also pin goalie Bailey Brkin against the team he played for in preseason before being traded for forward Max Patterson. In three games with Swift Current, Patterson has one assist and was also recently named to NHL Central Scouting’s ‘players to watch’ list for the 2018 Entry Draft.
Through five games in the 2017-18 season, the Ice have a 2-2-1-0 record and are in second place in the Central Division. Following the road trip, the team’s next game is at home against the Red Deer Rebels on Thursday, October 12.