Another night, another defeat.
The losses continue to pile up for the Kootenay Ice and while Saturday night’s 4-2 loss to the Medicine Hat Tigers may have been an improvement from Friday’s 4-2 loss to the Prince Albert Raiders, the simple fact of the matter is the outcome remained the same.
“Just because you have a good start, doesn’t mean that it’s always going to continue,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Kootenay Ice, Saturday night. “Teams are going to push back and you have to find ways to keep digging.
“Obviously, you want the result — the win — and you’re excited about the way everyone responded [after Friday]. I wasn’t devastated, but I wasn’t exactly excited either.”
A strong opening period gave the hosts a 1-0 lead and a 16-12 advantage on the shot clock.
Veteran winger Zak Zborosky showed his speed and soft hands to open the scoring, putting a nifty backhand past Tigers goaltender Nick Schneider only 3:40 into the festivities.
After that, the Tigers took over the in second period.
Led by 20-year-old defenceman Ty Stanton, the visitors put up three goals in the middle period, outshooting the Ice 20-7.
“We’re a smaller team, we’re not very big up front,” Stanton said after the win. “We have some small shifty guys. By the end of the game, we’re a pretty fast team, so I think that just wore their ‘D’ men down and we were able to outskate them in the ‘O’ zone and capitalize on our scoring chances.”
The Tigers evened the score 2:09 into the second as Caleb Fantillo put a rebound past Ice goaltender Wyatt Hoflin. The point shot on the play came from Tigers affiliate Cole Clayton, playing in only his third career WHL game. With the assist on the play, the 15-year-old native of Strathmore, Alta., registered his first career WHL point.
Stanton evidently learned something from the young Clayton as 3:27 elapsed before the 6-foot-4, 200-pound defenceman sent a long point shot of his own in on Hoflin. This time around, the rubber found the five-hole on the 20-year-old netminder and the Tigers were out front 2-1.
Tigers forward Mark Rassell capped the three-goal second period for the visitors.
Another long point shot from Stanton was mishandled by Hoflin, with the loose biscuit coming straight to Rassell, who deposited it for his 12th of the campaign and a 3-1 Medicine Hat lead after 40 minutes.
“We go into that shell again and our panic mode is everybody go to their own plan and try to dig our way out of it as individuals,” Pierce said. “We can’t do that. We have to play a team game. We have to rely on one another. We just got way too individualistic in that [second] period and it burned us.”
Simplicity helped the Ice get back to within one in the final period of regulation.
Defenceman Cale Fleury did his best Stanton impersonation, sending a long shot from the top of the right circle through the five-hole of Schneider to get the Ice within one only 2:50 into the third.
“It’s good because it shows it actually works keeping it simple,” Fleury said. “You don’t have to make a spectacular play to score a goal. You’ve just got to keep it simple and follow the game plan. It can work for you.”
Despite pressing for the equalizer late in the contest, the Ice came up empty and Tigers forward Chad Butcher sealed the victory, scoring a short-handed breakaway marker with less than two minutes remaining.
At the end of the night, Hoflin made 33 saves on 37 shots, while Schneider was good on 33 of 35 attempts.
Once again, special teams were costly for the Ice.
The Tigers converted on one of five power-play opportunities, while Kootenay was blanked on six man advantages.
“Crucial situations — the power play cost us again,” Pierce said. “No question. Special teams, in general, cost us the game. We go 0-for-6 [on the power play], give up a short-handed goal and they go 1-for-5 [on the power play]. There’s the difference in the hockey game.”
The win pulled the Tigers (18-22-3-1) past the Edmonton Oil Kings (17-21-5-1) and into the second and final wild card position in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
“We definitely struggled at the start of the season there,” Stanton said. “We had a lot of young guys come in this year and they’re just finally starting to develop and understand the systems. I know it’s a big jump from midget to the Western League.
“Guys are starting to figure it out and it’s getting easier for them. It makes the whole game better for everyone. That’s been a key part to our success lately.”
The Tigers have collected three consecutive wins and now embark on a gruelling B.C. Division road trip, beginning Wednesday at Victoria (26-15-1-3).
For the Ice (8-35-3-0), a strong start to 2016, which included points in three consecutive games, has quickly gone sour. Saturday’s loss is the fourth in a row for Kootenay.
Next up, the Ice take on the Spokane Chiefs (20-18-3-2) in a home-and-home affair, beginning Friday (7 p.m.) at Western Financial Place.