The Kootenay Ice are all set between the pipes.
The crease was crowded to start the regular season as the team carried three goaltenders — veteran Wyatt Hoflin plus rookies Keelan Williams and Jayden Sittler — on its season-opening swing through Red Deer and Edmonton last weekend.
The trio was reduced to two late Monday, as the Ice released Sittler, leaving Hoflin and Williams to take care of puck-stopping duties from here on out.
“Camp was very competitive and it wasn’t an easy decision getting rid of Jayden yesterday,” said Kootenay Ice assistant coach Jay Henderson Tuesday afternoon. “The big thing for Wyatt last year was how well he performed in playoffs. That’s a high-pressure situation, so his confidence coming into this year was very high…In the first two games, he’s been unreal for us, so hopefully that continues.
“It takes time to develop goalies. It takes a lot longer to develop a goalie than it does a defenceman or a forward. It’s more of a learning process and both [Hoflin and Williams] have handled it very well so far.”
Hoflin’s spot was never in question. As Mackenzie Skapski’s backup in 2013-14, the native of Spruce Grove, Alta. was 10-8-0 with a 2.92 goals-against average (GAA) and 0.904 save percentage (SP).
With Skapski off at New York Rangers camp, this is the year for Hoflin to take the reigns and backstop the Ice. The 19-year-old goaltender is focused on providing his team with a steady presence between the pipes.
“[Goaltending] is the last line of defence,” Hoflin said Tuesday afternoon prior to practice. “It’s what stops the puck from going in the net. Being consistent and trying to give your team that opportunity where it might not be their best game but you still give them a chance to win.
“[Team] confidence goes up with your confidence.”
In his first two games as the undisputed starter, Hoflin earned high praise from his coaches for doing exactly that. He turned aside 60 of the 66 shots he faced last weekend in Red Deer and Edmonton. Despite being outplayed by the Oil Kings, Hoflin kept his team in the game until a late third-period marker broke a 2-2 tie.
For Williams, his fate wasn’t set in stone until the release of Sittler. The 18-year-old native of Calgary, Alta. began his 2013-14 season in training camp with the Medicine Hat Tigers, before being sent back to the Okotoks Oilers of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
“It was really devastating,” Williams said of his release from Tigers camp last year. “I worked really hard in the off-season that year and I really wanted to make the team. I just had to take a step back and look at things and hope I was going to get a second chance. I did everything I could in Okotoks, playing well when I got my starts and making sure I’d be ready if I got a second opportunity at playing in the WHL.”
Perseverance paid off for the 6-foot-2 puck-stopper as he found his way to Cranbrook for Ice training camp in 2014. In two pre-season games, Williams posted the best numbers of the trio with a 2.67 GAA and 0.897 SP alongside a record of 0-1-0.
With Sittler’s release Monday, Williams is realizing his second opportunity.
“It was a huge weight off my shoulders,” Williams said in regards to hearing the news Monday. “I know that all the hard work paid off. It’s really exciting and now I’m ready to get the year going and battle with [Hoflin].
“He’s my teammate so I want to support him and I want the best for him. I want this team to win. But then again, I also want to do well myself. I’m going to battle him. If we have a healthy competition, it’s only going to make both of us better and it’s going to help our team win.”
Hoflin, Williams and the Ice will look for their second win of the 2014-15 WHL season when they face the Red Deer Rebels Saturday, Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. Kootenay opened the regular season with a 5-3 victory over the Rebels at the ENMAX Centrium Sept. 19.
Notes: The Kootenay Ice are now carrying 26 players with the release of Sittler; RW Jaedon Descheneau (St. Louis Blues) and D Tanner Faith (Minnesota Wild) were re-assigned from their respective NHL training camps Tuesday afternoon and are expected to join the team this week; C Luke Philp, listed day-to-day with a lower-body injury, is expected to be available for Saturday’s game in Red Deer; D Rinat Valiev is also nursing a lower-body injury and expected to miss three to five weeks.