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Let the big dance begin

Kootenay Ice open 2015 WHL Playoffs in Calgary hoping to repeat 2014 first-round upset
Ice F Jaedon Descheneau (left) hounds Hitmen D Travis Sanheim (right) earlier this season. Descheneau and Sanheim will go head-to-head once again as the Ice and Hitmen meet in the first round of the WHL playoffs.

The Kootenay Ice know it isn’t going to be easy.

They know the odds might be stacked against them.

But they also know, if there is any team in the WHL’s Eastern Conference capable of knocking off the Calgary Hitmen, it’s the Kootenay Ice.

After all, they’ve done it before.

“People are probably going to put their money down on Calgary,” said Kootenay Ice alternate captain Austin Vetterl Thursday morning. “But we know we can do it. Our room has the confidence to go in there and beat them in a seven-game series.”

The Ice and Hitmen prepare to meet in the first round of the WHL Playoffs for the second consecutive year after wrapping the regular season with a two-game back-to-back set. With two victories in those final outings, the Hitmen claimed the Central Division crown and locked in a first-round rivalry matchup with the top wild-card seed Kootenay Ice.

During the 2014 WHL Playoffs, the sixth-seeded Ice upset the third-seeded Hitmen in six games of their first-round series.

In 2014, the Kootenay Ice entered the post-season with less wins and points than the Calgary Hitmen (39 wins to 48; 83 points to 103). In 2015, the Ice enter the post-season under very similar circumstance (37 wins to 45; 78 points to 95).

If the Ice are to advance to the second round of the 2015 WHL Playoffs, it’s going to take a little bit of deja vu and an upset of similar proportions.

“Doing it last year will give us a little more confidence going into their building,” Vetterl said. “Obviously they’ve got home-ice advantage but we know we can win in that building.

“The regular season to the post-season is a totally different thing. It’s way faster hockey…Everyone is a little more committed to the style of game. Both teams are going to be out there giving it 100 per cent. The most important thing to do in the playoffs is doing the little things to win.”

With the likes of Adam Tambellini, Jake Virtanen, Connor Rankin up front -- just to name a few -- the Hitmen boast dangerous depth in the scoring department.

“Don’t give them too much time and space, especially in the neutral zone to get speed,” said Kootenay Ice alternate captain Luke Philp of shutting down Calgary’s big guns. “We have to have good back pressure as forwards to help out our ‘D’ and limit odd-man rushes.

“It’s going to be a battle, obviously we know that. We’ve been tweaking a few things all week here and I’m sure they’ve been making adjustments of their own. We’ve just got to be ready to play from the get-go. If we have good starts, that usually helps us along the way.”

On the flip side of the equation, Sam Reinhart, Tim Bozon, Philp and Jaedon Descheneau represent an equally lethal set of weapons in the scoring department.

The two teams battled through a seven-game regular-season series, with the Ice claiming three wins, including two on home ice. The Hitmen went 2-1-0 against the Ice at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

A matter of five goals separated the two teams in regular-season scoring, with the Hitmen registering 31 goals (4.43 goals per game) to Kootenay’s 26 tallies (3.71 goals per game). The bulk of that differential can be attributed to a 9-2 blowout win for the Hitmen in Cranbrook back on Oct. 24.

If the Ice hope to outscore their Central Division through a best-of-seven series, speed and a tenacious forecheck will be key to getting on the nerves of big defencemen Travis Sanheim, Keegan Kanzig and company.

“We’ve got to get the puck behind their ‘D’ and use our speed and get on them and be quick on them,” Vetterl said. “They’re big and physical. Not all of them move the puck all that well, so if we give them no time and space, we’re going to get the puck back and we’re going to be able to make plays on them down low.”

A young Kootenay blue line will need to deal with the likes of Calgary’s big forwards, which could be a big determining factor in the series.

In the goaltending department, the Hitmen boast a strong duo in Mack Shields and Brendan Burke.

Burke earned both victories over the Ice in the final two games of the regular season.

“Both those goalies are good goalies, but like any goalie, it’s all about getting traffic and pucks to the net,” Vetterl said.

“When we get pucks to the point, we’ve got to have men in front and when you’re on the rush, you’ve got to get puck to the pads and get rebounds.”

At the other end of the rink, a busy season is set to wear on for Ice goaltender Wyatt Hoflin.

The native of Spruce Grove, Alta., played in a franchise-record 67 games for the Ice and was named the Vaughn WHL Goaltender of the Month for March. Needless to say, the workload hasn’t seemed to have any adverse effect on the 20-year-old Hoflin, who has only gotten better as the season wore on.

Game 1 between the  Ice and Hitmen is slated for 7 p.m. Friday at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary.

After Game 2 Sunday afternoon, the two teams return to Cranbrook for Game 3 at Western Financial Place Tuesday night.

Notes: Ice F Sam Reinhart and D Rinat Valiev were named to the WHL’s Eastern Conference second all-star team Wednesday afternoon…

Injuries: Calgary Hitmen: D Jake Bean (upper body, one to two weeks) and F Pavel Karnaukhov (lower body, day to day)… Kootenay Ice: D Tanner Faith (shoulder, three to five months)...