For the fifth straight game, the Kootenay Ice lost by a single goal as they gave up their lead twice and fell to the Moose Jaw Warriors by a score of 3-2.
Once again, the final blow against the Ice came late, with the Warriors’ Nikita Popugaev getting the game winner with under six minutes to go in regulation.
Although it was another deeply frustrating night for the Ice, in the loss they got a glimpse of a bright future. Several first-year players had standout performances on Tuesday night, which gave hope despite the team’s aggravating present.
The most notable rookie in the lineup was Jakob Walter who played his first ever WHL game between the pipes for the Ice. Walter was superb in his debut, making 32 saves on 35 shots and giving his team a chance to win.
“It was good to get that first one out of the way, I just wish we could’ve won the game,” Walter said following the loss. “It was a close one, one lucky bounce could’ve changed the game.”
Despite playing in what was surely the biggest game of his career, Walter looked calm from the moment the puck dropped and stayed cool all night.
The Ice, as a whole, got off to a solid start in what was a tempered opening to the contest. At the start, the Ice and Warriors traded limited bouts of offensive pressure and Walter stood tall when he had to.
The Ice broke the scoring near the end of the first period, when Matt Alfaro made a hit and grabbed the puck in the Moose Jaw zone and threw it on net. The puck bounced right to Dylan Stewart, who buried it for his first of the year.
Down by one, the Warriors came out flying in the second. Captain Brett Howden tore down the left wing in the first minute but Walter hugged the post and kept the puck out. Moments later, Walter stopped Tanner Jeannot on a one-timer from the slot.
As the period progressed the play got a little more even but eight minutes in the Warriors tied up the game when defenceman Jett Woo threw a puck at the net that went over Walter’s glove.
The tie didn’t persist for long however, the Taphorn twins quickly went on the attack and combined to put the Ice back ahead with a fantastic odd man rush. It was Keenan Taphorn’s first career WHL goal and Cale Fleury was credited with the second assist
“I just put the puck on net [and] luckily it got a good bounce and went in,” Taphorn said on his first goal, which came just two games after his brother Kaedan got his first.
The second period ended with an Ice lead, but in the final frame the Warriors looked determined to make it a game. The Moose Jaw stars started to heat up and went on a long early third period stretch that looked like they had a powerplay despite being even strength.
Howden finally evened the game at around the five minute mark of the third, with a perfect deflection on defenceman Dmitri Zaitsev’s point shot.
While the game briefly settled down, and the Ice started to regain some momentum, with five minutes to go the Warriors sealed a victory off a great individual effort by one of their best players. Popugaev used his speed to split the defense and deked around Walter for the game’s winning tally.
Although it was a special night for both Walter and Taphorn, who achieved some of their first career milestones, it didn’t end the way either of them would’ve liked.
Coach Luke Pierce, however, did find some consolation, despite the game’s outcome, in their play.
“[The rookies] have exceeded expectations, there’s no doubt,” Pierce said. “Sam Huston as well, tonight, I thought [he] was outstanding. All those guys have been excellent.
“It bodes well for our future, but we need to focus on the present right now and capitalize on the contributions that those kids are giving us.”
For the kids, it’s just about getting a little luck. They’re certain that they’re very close to being a winning team.
“It takes that one bounce to get one in the back of the net and tie it up,” Keenan Taphorn said. “We just need that one goal, it seems like it’s the same [thing] every game [but] just one bounce and we’re 5-0.”
The Ice’s next three games are on the road, as they take on the Regina Pats on Friday, the Warriors again on Saturday, and the Swift Current Broncos on Monday.
The Ice got confirmation last night that they have a good future ahead of them, but they’ll be hoping to see that future manifest itself a little bit quicker in the win column.