A 72-game Western Hockey League schedule is no easy breeze and though players may become better accustomed over their years in the trenches, it’s still a battle to suit up for every single regular-season game.
With three games remaining on the Kootenay Ice slate, only four players on the roster have a shot at reaching the 72-game plateau this season.
Wily veteran Austin Vetterl, second-year forwards Matt Alfaro and Zak Zborosky along with second-year defenceman Troy Murray, have each suited up in all 69 games for the Kootenay Ice heading into Wednesday’s matchup with the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
“You’ve just got to stay focused, night in and night out,” Alfaro said prior to practice Tuesday morning at Western Financial Place. “Coming from midget, I played 34 [games]. Being a second-year [player] now, it’s a lot easier than last year. It was a big eye-opener basically playing two seasons in one.
“Really, just staying in shape and getting your rest at night will keep you going.”
With his team hoping to keep a firm grip on the first wild-card seed in the WHL’s Eastern Conference, Alfaro got his game going this past weekend, chipping in with three goals in a pair of wins over the Medicine Hat Tigers and Red Deer Rebels.
“It’s always good, being a third-line guy, to get some offense and get some points,” said the native of Calgary. “We’re going down the stretch here to the playoffs and we want to stay in the playoff spot that we’re in and not drop. It’s always key to get contributions from everyone.”
In his second year with the Ice, the 6-foot-2 Alfaro has established career numbers, posting 13 goals, 19 assists and 32 points in 69 games after managing two goals, 12 assists and 14 points in 65 games during his rookie season.
Fellow second-year forward Zak Zborosky is also in the midst of a career season, having tallied 16 goals, 21 assists and 37 points in 69 games.
To top it off, the 6-foot winger was ranked 97th amongst North American skaters by the NHL Central Scouting Service in its midterm ratings.
“One of the most important things is you’ve got to get your rest,” Zborosky said of enduring the 72-game schedule. “You’ve got to eat properly and things like that. You’ve just got to take care of your body. Yeah, it’s a long season but if you do all those things you’re fine.
“Playing in all those playoff games [last season], you know what’s expected and you know what it’s going to be like. You’re a little bit more prepared, a little bit more comfortable.”
Though Alfaro went unranked by the NHL Central Scouting Service, both he and Zborosky are eligible for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
While Alfaro turned it on this past weekend, Zborosky — a recent linemate of Alfaro’s — has had a difficult time finding the back of the net. The native of Regina hasn’t scored since Feb. 7 when the Brandon Wheat Kings visited Cranbrook.
“Lots of games I’m getting chances, but it’s not going in,” Zborosky said. “I’ve just got to keep working hard, keep shooting the puck on net and hopefully they start going in.”
Though he didn’t find the back of the net, Zborosky did set up a pair of goals in Friday’s win over the Tigers, including helping out Alfaro on one of his tallies.
Sights are now set on the Hurricanes, as Alfaro, Zborosky and the Ice head to Lethbridge Wednesday for the seventh and final meeting of the season between the two Central Division rivals.
“We’ve just got to keep playing hard and work hard in practice,” Zborosky said. “You know that going into playoffs, we’ve got to start playing like it’s playoffs right now and bear down and really play a full 60 [minutes].
“We’ve got to go in there just thinking it’s a playoff game. We’ve got to go hard and if we do that, follow the game plan, we should be fine.”
With one game in hand, the Ice hold a three-point edge on the Edmonton Oil Kings for the first wild-card seed in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
A win in any one of the final remaining games ensures the Ice of the first wild-card seed and a first-round playoff date with either the Calgary Hitmen or Medicine Hat Tigers, while locking the Oil Kings into a first-round series with the Brandon Wheat Kings.
Puck drop in Lethbridge is slated for 7 p.m. Wednesday.
The Kootenay Ice return home for one final regular-season engagement Friday night when the Calgary Hitmen visit Western Financial Place.
Video highlights: Lethbridge Hurricanes 1 at Kootenay Ice 4 (March 10):