After a big win at home against the Prince Albert Raiders on Wednesday night, there was a palpable feeling of excitement in the Kootenay Ice dressing room.
15-year-old whiz kid Peyton Krebs scored his first WHL goal and racked up four points, leading the Ice to a 6-3 win.The blinding brightness of the future softened what has otherwise been a tough stretch for the Ice.
Heading into a two game road-trip, the Ice had five key players injured, including the team’s top goal-scorer Vince Loschiavo. A pair of losses on the road over the weekend — 7-4 to Tri-City and 5-2 to Spokane — brought the team back down to earth.
Although the good times looked destined to keep rolling into Friday night, with Krebs having extra motivation in Kennewick, playing his older brother Dakota, a defenceman for Tri-City, for the first time ever — it didn’t work out as well as he may have hoped.
Even with his sister Maddison, a country music recording artist, adding to the special night as the national anthem singer for the game, Kootenay let in the first goal of the game just 41 seconds into the night.
By the midway point of the second period, it was a 4-0 game for the Americans. Although the Ice put up a nice fight in the latter half with goals by Brett Davis, Reed Morison and a pair from Austin Wellsby, the night ended in a 7-4 loss.
“I thought we played pretty well for large chunks [of the game on Friday],” said head coach Luke Pierce. “Payton had a little bit of an off night [and] it was tough giving up that one in the first shift [because then] we fought from behind all night long.
“Overall, we did some really good things. [It was] a decent road effort against a really good team. We just need to put all the pieces together at the same time.”
Krebs ended the game as a team low -3, while his brother was a +1. Leading the Americans on the statsheet was 18-year-old winger Parker AuCoin who had two goals and two assists in the win. AuCoin’s linemate Nolan Yaremko had the game-winner to go along with two assists.
Starting Ice goalie Payton Lee was pulled after the opening 30 minutes in a rare off-night for the 20-year-old where he gave up four goals on 12 shots.
Despite the loss, Kootenay outshot Tri-City 29-23 and were also perfect on the special teams with a goal on their only power play chance and successful kills on the Americans’ two man-advantages.
On Saturday, the Ice looked snake-bitten to start the game against the Chiefs in Spokane. The team was outshot 20-4 in the opening period, but due to solid play from goalie Jakob Walter, they went into the first intermission down only 1-0.
“I think we were paralyzed a bit with a little too much information maybe,” Pierce said of the slow start. “We talked about a lot of things after the game Friday night that would help us be an even better team and maybe we over thought things.”
The coach also admitted, however, that their opposition play had a lot to do with the lopsided opening.
“They’d [just] had six days off and a lot of practice time probably and emphasized their start needing to be really [good],” he said. “They played really well early [but] I thought we got better as the game went on and found a way to fight our way back.”
The Ice improved defensively in the second, only allowing nine shots, but again only managed four of their own. Kailer Yamamoto doubled the score five minutes into a middle frame, but the period was otherwise forgettable.
A minute into the third, however, Noah Philp jolted a ton of life back into the game with a perfect wrister fed to him in the slot from Wellsby.
The renewed life from the Kootenay side, unfortunately, infected the Chiefs, who put in three goals in the last 10 minutes of the night. While Kaeden Taphorn scored the second goal of his career in the final minute, Spokane walked away 5-2.
“They eventually wore us down,” Pierce said. “[But] the third period might have been our best period.”
Walter was very impressive, backstopping the Ice on the road. Despite having only played in 19 WHL games so far, Walter has already made three starts at the Chiefs’ arena. His 45 saves on 50 shots brought him up to a 0.952 save percentage in Spokane, an astonishing total next to his 0.881 overall tally for the season so far.
“[Walter’s] been good down there, he’s comfortable,” Pierce said. “It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t find a way to claw back and win that one because he gave us the chance to win it.
“The challenge for [him] is to find a way to put up really solid back-to-back starts.”
Although the Ice are now carrying a five game losing streak on the road and lost in a similar manner in Brandon last weekend, Pierce is seeing improvement from his group.
“[On] Friday, we were [definitely] more competitive as a team [than we were in Brandon],” he said. “Our younger, depth players played really well and then Saturday, we just looked like a tired group [and our injuries] caught up to us.”
Although Pierce hopes to see the return of Loschiavo and defenceman Ryan Pouliot tonight when the team hosts the Medicine Hat Tigers, the team will still definitely be without Barrett Sheen, Sam Huston, Nikita Radziliyuk — who Pierce said has had a minor setback in his recovery — and now likely captain Cale Fleury.
Fleury left Saturday night’s game after taking a hit-from-behind from Hudson Elynuik early in the second period and will be a game time decision, but according to Pierce he’s looking unlikely to be ready.
Despite the potential of another night with a significantly depleted lineup, Pierce hopes the team can get back into the win column and go for their third straight victory at home.
“We don’t have an abundance of reserves to bring in, so we’re going to have to find a way to make do,” he said. “Every team is dealing with [injuries] so there’s no excuse from that end of it, some guys are just going to have to step up.”
The Ice have been Tiger-meat so far this year, with losses in all three Medicine Hat contests so far this season. Kootenay has also been outshot in their meetings by a whopping 143-84 margin.
“Our puck management has to be better and we need to be a little more selective at times on what we’re doing offensively and not try to force plays,” Pierce said on handling a fast, skilled team like Medicine Hat. “They’re a good hockey team so we need to try to keep the puck as much as we can.”
The Tigers are the top team in the Central Division with 63 points in 47 games, while the Ice are last in the division and second last in the league with 30 points in 48 games.
Having played his maximum allowed five games as a 15-year-old affiliate player, Krebs returned to the CFR Chemical Bisons of the Alberta Midget Hockey League after Saturday’s game and won’t be eligible to return until that team’s season and playoffs have ended.