There wasn’t much doubt in Austin Wellsby’s mind on what the Kootenay Ice’s downfall was on Tuesday night against the visiting Medicine Hat Tigers.
“Turnovers were costly [and] I take some responsibility for that myself,” said the 19-year-old Ice alternate captain. “I had a couple of costly turnovers that resulted in goals, and in general we can’t afford to do that against a team like [the Tigers] that will capitalize and use their speed against us.”
The odds were stacked against Kootenay even before the puck was dropped. Several players were out of the lineup with injuries, including captain Cale Fleury, forcing the team to play with only 17 skaters.
While winger Vince Loschiavo and defenceman Ryan Pouliot returned after short absences for Tuesday’s game, without Barrett Sheen, Nikita Radzivilyuk, Sam Huston and Fleury, the Ice were forced to move centreman Reed Morison to defence and play with an empty slot in the forward lines.
Despite the unfavourable situation, the Ice started strong and had a solid first period in which they were quickly rewarded with a goal from Max Patterson.
Three and a half minutes into the night, Patterson took a pass from Michael King and walked in to beat Tigers’ goalie Michael Bullion with a low wrister.
The tally was Patterson’s third in his past two games at Western Financial Place and put him up to 6 on the year, just one away from his rookie season total in 2015-16.
Just 30 seconds after going up 1-0, the Ice picked up their first power play chance, but were unable to convert and the Tigers slowly took control of the game.
Medicine Hat defenceman Jordan Henderson evened the game up at the midway point of the opening period, beating Payton Lee with a blast delivered to him by defensive partner Dalton Gally.
In the second period, the game opened up and the Tigers took advantage of Kootenay early on. Max Gerlach put in the game-winner in the first three minutes of the frame, taking a puck put in front of the net by captain Clayton Kirichenko and Mark Rassell, and stuffing it under Lee’s pad.
The Ice put up some good possession time and found a way to get pucks on net after the goal, but Bullion stood tall long enough to keep his team’s lead.
Gerlach added an insurance marker 13 minutes into the second with a perfectly placed shot on an odd-man rush and then the Tigers put in two additional heartbreaker goals in the last two minutes of the period.
The final two markers of the period were both deflections, from Zach Fischer and Kirichenko and sent the Ice into their locker room down 4-1.
Although the Ice got a good opportunity to get back into the game with an early power play in the third, the Tigers managed to skate their way to a shorthanded breakaway and Dallas Hines’ goal-saving tripping penalty sent them to four-on-four.
From there, the Tigers controlled the third and three goals in under four minutes from Shaw, Dahlstrom, and Rassell ended Lee’s night.
Rassell’s goal, a chip-in at the end of a mad scramble in front, particularly frustrated Lee who did not look to the bench and made a shooing-away motion when backup Jakob Walter skated out to replace him. He did begrudgingly take a seat on the bench however.
Walter ended the night by stopping all three shots he faced, while Lee was saddled with a 0.757 save percentage and 8 goals against.
As the team’s resident optimist, Wellsby tried to see some positive elements of the lopsided loss, but had difficulty feeling too happy about anything outside of the first few minutes.
“We were right in it at the start [and] our last few games we’ve struggled with the start, so it’s nice to see that but [then] they came at us and we couldn’t stop the bleeding,” Wellsby said. “[At the end], all we could do was work hard every shift and show character and build momentum for the next game.”
While the Ice couldn’t repair the scoreline in the closing minutes, they did manage to get some licks in against the Tigers.
Some punching and shoving heavily featuring Vince Loschiavo, Jake Elmer and Ryan Pouliot midway through the final frame may have resulted in nothing more than a few roughing penalties, but according to Wellsby, it was a step towards what the team needs.
“When a game like that goes that way, it’s nice to see guys that are playing physically and feisty,” he said.
Max Patterson, the lone goal scorer, agreed but wished it didn’t need to get to that point.
“I think that it’s a good thing that no one [on this team] likes to lose,” he said. “But we shouldn’t [ever] be in that situation where we’re mad [because we’re] down 8-1 to a team.”
Speaking on his own performance, while Patterson was happy to have gotten another goal, he was disappointed that it didn’t end up meaning much in the grand scheme of the game.
“It was nice [to score] and I definitely want to have a couple more down the stretch, but we need to find better ways to play with the lead and sustain it.”
When asked what the impact of playing without Fleury, Patterson said that his absence definitely could not be ignored.
“It was pretty noticeable [that he wasn’t there],” he said. “He’s our leader and he logs a lot of minutes every night, so we definitely missed him.”
The thrashing by the Tigers was the Ice’s fourth straight loss to the Central Division leader this year and through those games Kootenay has been outscored 27-7.
The margin of defeat was the Ice’s biggest since December 17 when Kamloops beat them 8-1 at Western Financial Place.
While there were a lot of unhappy faces in the locker room on Tuesday night, Wellsby believes that’s the way it should be.
“It’s tough. You look around the room and guys are disappointed, [but] it’s a good thing,” he said. “That’s what you want to see, guys who care about winning. We just have to do our best to stay positive.”
Wellsby and Patterson both said they are anticipating a lot of hard work in their next two practices on Wednesday and Thursday as they prepare for back-to-back home games against the Spokane Chiefs and the Calgary Hitmen over the weekend.
Puck drop against the Chiefs will be at 7 p.m on Friday.