The 2015-16 Western Hockey League season came to a disappointing end for the Kootenay Ice this past weekend as the club dropped back-to-back outings to the Calgary Hitmen.
In the team’s final home game of the season, the Ice lost a 5-2 decision to the visiting Hitmen Friday night, before falling 6-5 in the shootout Sunday afternoon at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Kootenay Ice, following Friday’s loss. “We’ve done some decent work here lately…overall, you’re seeing some strides. To not be able to put that together one last time… We’ve had an extremely loyal, supportive fanbase all year long. People want to talk about the numbers [attendance] and all that stuff, but to me, there are nights when they’re loud and they get into it and it sounds like there’s 5,000 people in here.
“Even people you run into on the street, they compliment that the group is still working. [The fans] are so supportive when they have every right to be critical and negative. For us to leave that type of taste in their mouth [Friday’s loss to Calgary], for me and I know for Jeff [Chynoweth, president and general manager] especially, for everything he has built up over the years here, it’s extremely disappointing and something that unfortunately you can’t get over right away because you don’t play at home again until September.
“It’s tough to live with.”
For the first time in its history in Cranbrook, the Ice will miss the WHL post-season. The last time the franchise missed the playoffs came at the conclusion of the 1997-98 season during the club’s second and final year as the Edmonton Ice.
Affiliate Tristen Nielsen and Jakob Stukel, twice, scored over the course of 3:30 in the second period to put the Hitmen ahead for good Friday. The Hitmen also received scoring from Matteo Gennaro and Carsen Twarynski, while Nik Amundrud made 16 saves to collect his 12th victory of the campaign.
On the other side, veteran winger Zak Zborosky accounted for both goals on behalf of the Kootenay Ice, while goaltender Wyatt Hoflin made 36 saves.
“From the start of the game, we weren’t prepared to play at all,” Zborosky said Friday. “We were slow the whole time, losing battles on pucks. Over a matter of time, they took over and that’s what’s going to happen when you’re facing a good team — they’re going to capitalize.”
Gennaro cruised behind the Kootenay cage and jammed one past Hoflin at the side of the net only 11 seconds into regulation to give the visitors a 1-0 lead.
After that, Zborosky — a man on a mission in search of the 30-goal plateau — changed the face of the period.
Taking a feed in the slot from Alfaro, Zborosky sent a quick zinger past Amundrud to tie the game 1-1 with 4:10 remaining in the first period. The goal was the 29th of the campaign for the Ice leading scorer.
On their next shift out, Alfaro and Zborosky got right back to work. Once again, Alfaro fed Zborosky on top of the blue paint and the 19-year-old native of Regina popped another home to give the Ice a 2-1 lead, collecting his career-high 30th goal of the season in the process. Only 1:20 had elapsed between Zborosky’s 29th and 30th goals of the season.
“I got to set [Alfaro] up for his 20th this year and for him to give me a tap-in like that for my 30th, it was awesome,” Zborosky said of hitting the 30-goal plateau. “It’s something we’ll remember.
“Not many guys that play in the league can reach that milestone. For me to do that, I’m very proud of it.”
The second period saw a quick and painful shift of momentum for the home team as the visiting Hitmen struck three times over 3:30.
Nielsen, the 16-year-old Hitmen affiliate, tied the game 2-2 with his first-career WHL goal 10:45 into the second period.
Stukel tallied back-to-back markers to give his team a 4-2 lead after 40 minutes. Stukel’s second of the night came on the man advantage with Shane Allan serving a slashing minor. Only 1:49 separated Stukel’s first and second goals of the night, his 34th and 35th of the season.
After outshooting the hosts 12-6 in the first period, the Hitmen piled on in the second period, firing 18 shots at Hoflin, while the Ice only managed four shots on Amundrud.
Twarynski extended the lead to 5-2 midway through the third period. With on Jesse Zaharichuk back to defend, the Hitmen went in 3-on-1. Travis Sanheim fed Twarynski who easily deposited the puck into the back of the net for a shorthanded goal as Mark Kastelic served a slashing minor.
With 7:41 remaining in the third period, Alfaro had a glorious chance to get his team back in the game. After being hauled down on a breakaway, the veteran centre was awarded a penalty shot. Starting from his own blueline, Alfaro work his way to the right side before cutting back to the middle and deking Amundrud. The Hitmen goaltender sprawled out and was able to get his right pad down and across to keep Alfaro from finding payday.
Zborosky added to his eventful evening by scrapping Hitmen forward Andrew Fyten during the second period. After Zborosky laid a heavy hit in the corner, Fyten confronted him and the two went to blows. The veteran Ice forward sent Fyten to the ground in dramatic fashion, swinging the Hitmen winger into a heavy body slam.
Hoflin and Zborosky led the list of honourees as the Kootenay Ice recognized their best and brightest performers from the 2015-16 season prior to puck drop Friday. Hoflin was presented with the Rod Hunter Ltd. Players Award for perseverance, commitment and dedication to hockey, as voted upon by the players. Zborosky was named the Apollo Ristorante Most Valuable Player (see Tuesday’s Daily Townsman for the complete awards story and photos).
Sunday afternoon in Calgary, the Ice (12-53-6-1) fell by a 6-5 shootout margin to the Hitmen (42-26-2-2).
“These guys are tough to motivate right now,” Pierce said prior to Sunday’s loss. “It’s up to them, really. They’ve got to decide how they want to leave their last impression. We’ve now left this impression on our home fans, but what do want to leave with your teammates? You think of the Gretzky quote — ‘You’re only as good as your last shift.’ Well, for a lot of these guys, this might be their last shift.
“We’ll see what they’re made of. At the same time, I respect the fact it’s extremely challenging being in the situation we’re in. But you’ve got to be more mature than that, more professional than that and make sure you compete.”
The Hitmen received scoring from Travis Sanheim, Keegan Kanzig, Twarynski, Tyler Mrkonjic and Stukel, who also registered the shootout winner Sunday afternoon. Cody Porter made 16 saves before being replaced by Amundrud, who stopped two shots in regulation and three more in the skills competition.
Zborosky and Alfaro continued to pace the offense Sunday. Alfaro’s 21st and 22nd goals of the season were sandwiched between Zborosky’s 31st and 32nd goals of the campaign, while Shane Allan tallied his third of the season to complete a third-period comeback and force overtime.
Hoflin turned aside 34 pucks and one more in the shootout in the final outing of his WHL career as he and the Ice battled right down to the last buzzer.