A long and difficult road trip for the Kootenay Ice finally came to an end Tuesday night, but not before one last difficult outing was in the books.
Tuesday at the CN Centre in Prince George, the Ice (6-24-2-0) fell by a 7-2 margin to the Cougars (18-9-1-1). The loss goes on record as the fifth defeat on a season-long, five-game road trip through the B.C. Division and drags the team’s season-long losing streak to an active eight games.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do and it’s not going to be easy,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Kootenay Ice, over the phone from Prince George Tuesday night. “We’ve got to make sure we really focus in on the little things.
“With where we’re at and the bodies we have, now you’re almost starting all over again at zero. We saw some real good progression of our team in mid-October and into November. I thought we were showing some really, really good strides. But we have to remember how we got to that point.
“We’re going to start back at zero again, build ourselves back up and take another run at the mountain.”
The mountain that was the WHL’s B.C. Division ultimately defeated the Kootenay Ice on this go around, culminating with Tuesday loss to the Cougars.
The hosts roared out to a 3-0 lead before the mid-mark of the second period, with Brad Morrison, Sam Ruopp and Luke Harrison providing the Cougars’ offense.
The Ice struck a spark of life late in the second period as Zak Zborosky, a relatively forgotten name in recent weeks, returned to the lineup for the first time in 13 games to score a dazzling goal on a great individual effort with 4:03 to play in the middle period.
“Having Zak Zborosky back in the lineup gives guys like [Matt] Alfaro, Jesse Zaharichuk and those guys even that much more of a boost,” Pierce said.
“Zak helps us on our power play with some skill there and he’s a threat off the rush — just like his goal was [Tuesday]. It’s an encouraging sign to have him back in.
“It helps us a lot longer term [getting Zborosky back] but when you lose Dylan Stewart, when you bring Zak back it doesn’t quite give you the full two-line balance you need to play against really good teams.”
Trailing 3-1 following 40 minutes of play, the Ice were still in the contest — an accomplishment worth recognition considering this was a team playing its fifth game in seven nights away from home all while having covered more than 2,000 km of highway.
“It’s tough. I thought we gave ourselves a chance going into the third period,” Pierce said. “You’re only down 3-1, if you get a goal there early you can probably put a lot of pressure on them and make them panic. But we couldn’t make the right plays out of our zone and they made us pay. That’s a really good hockey team.”
The wheels fell off the wagon in the third period for the Ice, though not until the final 10 minutes of regulation.
After Cougars forward Chase Witala registered a power-play marker 3:47 into the third, Ice rookie Noah Philp responded with a man-advantage tally of his own.
The goal, which came at 9:05, finds a place in time as the first of the young Philp’s WHL career. After the Ice had fallen behind by three goals for the second time on the night, it pulled them back within two goals once again.
But Witala wasn’t done.
The 20-year-old native of Prince George killed any momentum the Ice might have gained by putting his second of the night past goaltender Declan Hobbs only 35 seconds after Philp made it a two-goal affair.
From there, Morrison piled on with his second of the contest before Witala completed the hometown hat trick with one minute remaining in regulation.
As the final buzzer sounded, Ice rookie Austin Gray — another Prince George product — found himself in the midst of a spirited scrap with well-travelled over-age forward Luke Harrison.
Gray and Harrison weren’t the only ones with the mitts off, as the CN Centre ice was littered with gloves, helmets and gear from both sides.
While the emotional response was encouraging to Pierce, he emphasized the unfortunate reality that it came far too late in the evening.
“I would’ve loved to see that from somebody early in the game — some emotion — especially when they took the 3-0 lead,” Pierce said. “We needed a spark. We needed some energy somewhere. It would be a great time for something like that to happen.
“We talk on the bench about needing someone to provide something — a spark — and there’s so much opportunity for somebody who wants to go out — and I’m not talking about fighting all the time — but to go out and set a tone and a presence.
“If you want to go do that, you’re going to get a lot of ice time from us. Because that’s a vacancy we have on our team.
“You’ve got to be pretty gutsy, pretty confident to mix it up in the middle of the game where there could be something coming for you later. But more times than not these days, people talk a lot and not a lot happens. Both teams. We needed some sort of spark and physicality similar to that earlier in the game. Maybe that’s something we can learn from.”
Between the pipes, Hobbs turned aside 32 of 39 shots as his club was once again outshot by a significant margin.
At the other end, Cougars goaltender Ty Edmonds was good on 21 of 23 attempts to earn his 10th win of the campaign, backstopping Prince George to its sixth consecutive victory.
With Tuesday’s outcome over and done with, the Ice hit the long road home to Cranbrook.
Next up, Jon Martin and the Swift Current Broncos (8-17-3-1) — winless in 11 consecutive contests — visit Western Financial Place on A&W Teddy Bear, Toque and Mitten Toss night Saturday.
Notes: With Zborosky’s return from a lower-body injury, the Ice went without D Dylan Overdyk, D Tyler King (knee), C Luke Philp (ankle), RW Jaedon Descheneau (shoulder), RW River Beattie (head) and C Dylan Stewart (head)… Tuesday’s attendance at the CN Centre in Prince George was announced at 2,350…