A week after back-to-back wins over the Red Deer Rebels, the Kootenay Ice have another huge opportunity to move up in the standings this weekend.
Facing off against a pair of division rivals who have had rough starts to their seasons, head coach James Patrick is adamant that his team needs to come ready to play.
The Ice (10-13-1-0) play the last-in-the-WHL, Edmonton Oil Kings (5-15-2-0) on the road on Friday, before hosting the Lethbridge Hurricanes (9-12-1-0) on Saturday.
“I haven’t seen an easy game since I’ve been here,” Patrick said. “Every team we play has some good players, some really good 20-year-olds.”
Back on October 1, Kootenay lost 4-3 to the Oil Kings at home and the group has learned to not judge a team by their record.
“It was early in the season, but I thought they played harder than us,” Patrick said. “[They were] good and strong on the puck [and] I’m surprised that their record isn’t a little better.
“I know we’ll be better than we were last night, but I’m expecting a tough game in their building.”
On Tuesday, the Ice lost 5-2 to the powerhouse Portland Winterhawks in a mostly disappointing display of effort and grit.
“We played a really good team and we [were] good for periods of time, but we were out-backchecked [and] out-competed,” Patrick said of the loss. “Whether you’re a top end player or not, you can still backcheck your hardest, you can still make the commitment to block shots, [so] some of those habits were disappointing, unacceptable and are not going to help us be a better team.”
Putting them through a high-tempo, hard skating practice on Wednesday, the coach believes that the boys got the message.
“They’ve worked hard in practice all year [and] I think emotions [just] got the better of us [on Tuesday],” he said. “Our players are going to make mistakes and they’ll learn from [them].”
While the Winterhawks, who have only lost four games all year, are a very different team than the Oil Kings, the Ice need to be prepared for another dynamic first line.
Cody Glass, Kieffer Bellows and Skyler McKenzie took it to Kootenay on Tuesday and Patrick knows that Oil Kings’ stars like Trey Fix-Wolansky, Colton Kehler and Davis Koch have the ability to be just as lethal.
“When we’re playing a top line like Edmonton’s, [we can’t] give odd man rushes [or] let them beat us off the rush,” he said. “Then, when it’s in the defensive zone, if they get the puck down low, we have to be really quick [to] try and outnumber them.
“It takes hard word, it takes battle, it takes pinning, it takes moving your feet to get there quickly [and] it takes really good stick-on-stick.”
So far this year, Fix-Wolansky has 27 points in 22 games and Czech-import centreman Tomas Soustal has 20 points in 17 games since being traded from Kelowna to Edmonton.
Kootenay, on the other hand, doesn’t have a point-per-game-player with Colton Kroeker putting up 19 in 21 games, Alec Baer with 18 in 24 and rookie Peyton Krebs with 18 in 19 games.
After his first game as the team’s captain on Tuesday, Patrick believes that Kroeker will start to get more comfortable in the role after a shaky debut.
“I’ve seen it so often when a player is named captain, it takes him a bit of time to adjust because [often] they think they have to act differently,” the coach explained. “I’ve tried to talk to Colton about [this and told him], ‘Just be yourself and play your game.’”
On Saturday, Kroeker should be especially motivated to prove himself against the team he was traded from during last year’s January deadline.
Although the Hurricanes haven’t lived up to their lofty expectations yet, they should bring some heat to Western Financial Place.
“They were a playoff team last year and I know they have a lot of holdover players from that team,” Patrick said. “When a team hasn’t played as well as they expected, they’re bound to get it right. They’re frustrated and hopefully working on things and trying to get better.
“I don’t want to look ahead to that game [yet], but I know they’re a bit of a rival of ours. We got Alec Baer from them, but they have three other good 20-year-olds, [and] they have a 16-year-old (Dylan Cozens) who is in the same category as Krebs.”
Leading Lethbridge in points is overager Giorgio Estephan (33 points in 21 games) and 1999-born Jordy Bellerive (30 points in 21 games). Cozens has also had an impressive rookie year with 18 points in 17 games.
Their roster also includes former Ice winger Jake Elmer, who was traded in the Baer-deal during preseason.
With 21 points so far this season, the Ice are in second place in the Central Division, while the ‘Canes are in third with 19 points and two games in hand.
A pair of wins against Edmonton and Lethbridge could do wonders for the team’s playoff aspirations, but in order to make it a reality, they definitely need to learn from their performance against Portland.
“I showed players clips [from Tuesday] of one player skating as hard as he could on the forecheck and two players gliding from the blue line in,” Patrick said. “[Portland] certainly doesn’t do that. They play with a lot of pace. They’re fast to start with and they play with pace to their game.”
Puck drop on both nights is at 7 p.m. with the Saturday tilt taking place at Western Financial Place with a special ‘Food Drive Night’ promotion.
The Ice will be accepting food and cash donations on Saturday with all donations going to the Cranbrook Food Bank. Those wanting to donate a nonperishable food item can drop it off in bins located in the mezzanine at Western Financial Place and cash donations will be accepted as well.