The crowd at Rogers Place is always awe-inspiring, but it will be at another level on Wednesday.
The brand new 18,000 plus capacity arena is hosting its first ever “Hockey Hooky”, an annual event that allows school children from all over Edmonton to go on a field trip to an Oil Kings game.
This year, the Ice will be the Oil Kings’ opponent at the unusual time of 11:30 a.m.
“It’ll be a neat environment. It’s a great promotion that our league does,” said Kootenay head coach, Luke Pierce. “15,000 screaming children may be hard for me to take [though]. I might put some earplugs in.”
Jokes aside, the game is of vital importance to the Ice. Despite improved play over the past two matches, the team hasn’t won in six games.
“We’re playing the right way and Edmonton has been struggling, [so] it’s a must-win for us,” said alternate captain Vince Loschiavo after Sunday’s 6-4 home loss to the Lethbridge Hurricanes. “We just have to treat it like any other game, come out the right way and take it to them.”
Loschiavo pointed to the team’s start against the ‘Canes as a model for how the team needs to play against the Oil Kings and any other team.
The Ice’s top line — Loschiavo and Colton Kroeker centered by Brett Davis — scored twice against Lethbridge in the afternoon’s opening 10 minutes, before losing their focus as the game wore on.
“[I think we could have beaten Lethbridge], we came out good and it’s all about [just] getting those few extra goals,” Loschiavo said. “We’re really going to have to push to work towards that because right now we’re in games and as a team, we’ve just got to believe that we can win them.”
For Pierce, it comes down to more than belief.
“[We need] a little more sacrifice, a little more game intelligence,” he said. “It’s just eliminating those silly [goals against]. You’re going to get beat at times, but we’ve got to take out the dumb errors and give ourselves a much better chance at fighting in there.”
Although Kootenay was a victim of several nearly impossible to stop goals on Sunday — many generated by former player Zak Zborosky — the ‘Canes sixth goal was a shorthanded marker that drove Pierce up the wall.
“It was painful to see it happening for awhile and yelling from the bench that there’s a guy coming and he had way too much time there,” Pierce said on the marker put in by a player left completely unguarded in front of the Ice’s net. “That’s a play [where] we don’t finish a check. We swing, we want to make the easy play and keep up our momentum.
“You do that stuff when you’re playing in the beer league … you’ve got your whole life to play beer league hockey. If you want to play real hockey, you’ve got to stop and start and finish checks.”
Pierce explained that it was that sort of play that caused them to give up almost 60 shots against, and he hopes the loss serves as a lesson that they have to tighten up in the defensive end.
Going into Edmonton, he’d like the team’s game to more closely resemble their performance against Prince Albert on Saturday. The Ice took that game to a shootout and outshot the Raiders 37 to 28.
“[In games against] young teams, it’s about who’s going to work harder [and] I thought we outworked [Prince Albert] and didn’t get the break that we needed,” Pierce said. “If you outcompete people every night, you’re going to win more than you lose, and that’s got to be our mentality going in.”
The Oil Kings have been one of the coldest teams in the WHL since January. Although they won on Sunday against the Hitmen, Edmonton had lost their previous 16 games, their worst run in almost four years.
Despite their struggles, the Oil Kings still have several dangerous players, including leading scorer Davis Koch who has five points in his last five games and is averaging a point-a-game through 56 outings.
On the Ice’s side, there are several players on hot streaks. Kroeker has six points in his last two, including four goals, while Loschiavo has 13 points in his last seven, and Davis has 11 in his last seven.
According to Pierce, the matinee against the Oil Kings is as close as they can get to a ‘must win situation.’
“[Must win is] kind of the way I want to bill it for our players,” he said. “We don’t get a lot of those types of scenarios with where we’re at, but this is an opportunity for us to phrase it that way and see how we respond.
“[It puts] a little bit of pressure on our players.”
Heading into the early game, the Ice are tied for last place in the WHL with Prince Albert who have played one more game than Kootenay. Both teams have 33 points.
The Oil Kings are only two spots ahead of the Ice with 42 points, and in second to last in the Central Division. They are unlikely to make the playoffs.