Winless in 11 games, the Kootenay Ice limped back to Cranbrook in the early hours of Sunday morning after dropping the final two contests on a four-game road trip.
A 7-1 defeat at the hands of the Prince Albert Raiders was logged Friday night, before a 4-1 loss to the Saskatoon Blades was entered into the books Saturday.
Despite the outcomes, the first fact to jump to the forefront is a long list of walking wounded, including defenceman Troy Murray, forwards Roman Dymacek, Austin Wellsby, Austin Gray, Matt Alfaro and Dylan Stewart (plus the long-departed Jaedon Descheneau).
Even with the additions of affiliates Reed Morison and Eli Lieffers, Kootenay Ice head coach Luke Pierce was still only operating with 10 forwards at his disposal, eight of which were regulars.
Not exactly an ideal recipe for success for any coach in the Western Hockey League.
“Overall, with all the circumstance of seventh game in 11 days and missing the guys we’re missing, back-to-back nights and all that stuff, I was pretty proud of the effort our guys had [Saturday],” Pierce said Sunday afternoon following a long bus ride back to Cranbrook.
“Everyone talks about not wanting to make excuses, but I don’t think it’s an excuse when it’s reality. It’s the truth. It’s pretty difficult in any league, let alone in this league, to play with essentially eight forwards.
“You can see we can’t find that extra little gear in the third [period]… There’s no question, it’s extremely difficult, but I thought our guys battled pretty hard.”
Friday night, the Ice had jump early and it paid off as Tanner Lishchynsky opened the scoring with his sixth goal of the campaign, driving the net hard to beat Raiders goaltender Rylan Parenteau.
After that, it was all down hill for the visitors.
Only 15 seconds after the Ice captain gave his club the lead, Parker Kelly knotted the game 1-1 and shortly thereafter Luke Coleman provided Prince Albert with the advantage, sending a power-play goal past Wyatt Hoflin.
Down 2-1 after 20 minutes, the visiting Ice were very much still in the game until Jordan Tkatch broke the back of an emotionally fragile group early in the second period.
For the second time in two weeks, the Ice — in particular, Hoflin — fell victim to unfortunate puck luck.
Raiders forward Jordan Tkatch sent a long dump-in attempt off the glass and into Kootenay territory. As usual, the active Hoflin vacated his crease to make a play on the puck as he does successfully night in and night out. But the frozen rubber ricocheted off a stanchion and straight into an empty Kootenay net. All Hoflin could do was watch helplessly from below the goal line.
On the team’s last road trip, Swift Current Broncos affiliate Dom Schmiemann scored on an identical play as the Ice fell 4-2 in Swift Current Feb. 20.
“I thought we were playing hard and dictating the pace of play. I think their third goal was really the one that broke our backs,” Pierce said of Tkatch’s flukey marker. “For the second time a couple weeks it’s a dump in that hits a stanchion and Wyatt’s out to play the puck like he normally would be. It goes right into the empty net.
“It just really deflated our group. We’ve talked about that, being young, we’ve got to be a lot stronger mentally. We just didn’t recover from that.”
The wheels fell off the wagon from there as Simon Stransky extended the lead to 4-1 before Tkatch collected two more to complete the hat trick. Reid Gardiner rounded out the scoring with his 38th of the campaign and the Raiders led 7-1 after 40 minutes of play.
Parenteau made 29 saves for the win, while Hoflin was pulled after allowing seven goals on 28 shots. Declan Hobbs came in to mop up and turned aside all nine pucks sent his way.
Saturday in Saskatoon, the battle-worn Ice fought hard, but ultimately fell short once again.
Zak Zborosky scored a second-period shorthanded marker to boost his club while Hobbs, a Saskatoon native, turned in a stellar 33-save performance on home ice.
“He competed and he was prepared to play,” Pierce said of Hobbs. “We talked about his preparation on the trip. We weren’t happy with the start of his game in Medicine Hat [a 3-0 loss March 1].
“We talked about the need for him to take every start that he gets extremely seriously and be better prepared to play and he was. That’s real encouraging for us as a staff to know that the potential is there with him.
“He was clean. He made the first stop all the time. All three of their goals — excluding the empty-netter, which is irrelevant — are in and around the blue paint, which we have to do a better job of [collapsing around and battling for] as a team. They’re certainly no fault of his.”
Logan Christensen and Ryan Graham, twice, responded for the Blades, while Connor Gay sealed the outcome with an empty-net tally late in the regulation.
Brock Hamm blocked 25 pucks to backstop the Blades to victory.
The condensed schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Kootenay Ice (10-50-6-0) as the Central Division-leading Lethbridge Hurricanes (43-21-1-1) visit Cranbrook on 2-for-1 Tuesday at Western Financial Place.
Friday, March 4
Kootenay Ice 1 at Prince Albert Raiders 7
First Period1. KTN – T. Lishchynsky, (6) (unassisted), 15:432. PAR – P. Kelly, (7) (K. Olynek, L. Bensmiller), 15:583. PAR – L. Coleman, (11) (B. Guhle, V. Budik), 17:20 (PP)
Second Period4. PAR – J. Tkatch, (21) (R. Gardiner, L. Morrison), 4:395. PAR – S. Stransky, (17) (J. Lees, V. Budik), 11:326. PAR – J. Tkatch, (22) (J. Lees, S. Stransky), 15:207. PAR – J. Tkatch, (23) (R. Gardiner, S. Stransky), 18:568. PAR – R. Gardiner, (38) (J. Tkatch), 19:01
Third Period – No scoring
Shots 1 2 3 TKootenay Ice 10 13 7 30Prince Albert Raiders 11 17 9 37
Goaltenders Saves Mins SV%KTN – Wyatt Hoflin (L) 21/28 39:01 0.750- Declan Hobbs 9/9 20:59 1.000PAR – Rylan Parenteau 29/30 60:00 0.967
Power playsKootenay Ice 0/2 (00.0%)Prince Albert Raiders 1/3 (33.3%)
Three Stars1) C Jordan Tkatch, Prince Albert Raiders (3G, 1A, plus-5);2) D Vojtech Budik, Prince Albert Raiders (2A, plus-3);3) LW Simon Stransky, Prince Albert Raiders (1G, 2A)
Attendance: 2,609 (Art Hauser Centre)
Saturday, March 5
Kootenay Ice 1 at Saskatoon Blades 4
First Period1. SAS – L. Christensen, (4) (W. Sloboshan, M. McCarty), 13:072. SAS – R. Graham, (20) (C. Waltz, C. Hebig), 17:06
Second Period2. KTN – Z. Zborosky, (27) (J. Wenzel), 9:07 (SH)
Third Period3. SAS – R. Graham, (21) (B. Shmyr, N. Reid), 10:424. SAS – C. Gay, (23) (W. Sloboshan, C. Hebig), 19:49 (EN)
Shots 1 2 3 TKootenay Ice 9 9 8 26Saskatoon Blades 13 8 16 37
Goaltenders Saves Mins SV%KTN – Declan Hobbs 33/36 58:56 0.917SAS – Brock Hamm 25/26 60:00 0.962
Power playsKootenay Ice 0/2 (00.0%)Saskatoon Blades 0/3 (00.0%)
Three Stars1) LW Ryan Graham, Saskatoon Blades (2G, plus-2);2) G Brock Hamm, Saskatoon Blades (25 saves);3) G Declan Hobbs, Kootenay Ice (33 saves)
Attendance: 4,554 (SaskTel Centre)