Throughout training camp, pre-season and the first week of the Western Hockey League campaign, Luke Pierce continually stressed work ethic and compete level.
Friday night, that very concept led the Kootenay Ice to a resounding 5-2 win over the Spokane Chiefs, handing the 32-year-old rookie bench boss his first-career WHL victory.
“Right now, it feels great. It’s just nice to get it out of the way and it’s nice that I thought we earned it,” Pierce said Friday night. “I thought our guys played real well, from our goaltender right on out. Our veteran guys kind of led the way, which we need them to do with the group that we have.”
The veterans for the Ice certainly shone Friday, as centre Luke Philp put forth a first-star performance with two goals, both on the power play, and one assist.
A newly-minted line combination featuring Philp, fellow 20-year-old right-winger Jon Martin along with Matt Alfaro, proved to be a thorn in the side of the Chiefs from start to finish.
After Keanu Yamamoto opened the scoring to give the Chiefs a 1-0 edge in the first period, the veteran duo of Philp and Martin took over.
All it took was 1:13 before Philp converted a 5-on-3 power-play opportunity to even the game.
“When you play with a guy like Jonny, he creates so much space out there,” Philp said after Friday’s win. “He’s so strong. He hounds pucks so well. He did a great job at that tonight.”
Early in the second period, the native of Canmore showed a dazzling display of his offensive ability and confidence with the puck, dancing through the Chiefs defense before depositing the puck past goaltender Garret Hughson for a 2-1 lead.
After Philp undressed the defense on his second goal of the night, 18-year-old right-winger Zak Zborosky took a lead pass from defenceman Troy Murray, breaking in alone and fending off a check before jamming home his first goal of the season.
“We worked hard in practice on going to the net and rebound shots,” said Zborosky, a native of Regina, following Friday’s triumph. “I just took what we did in practice and brought it into the games. Turned out I got two goals and it worked out.
“Honestly, all the energy in the room after was awesome. During the game, you could tell we were all up and at it on the bench. The energy was really good. To get that first win out of the way was awesome.”
Midway through the second period, Austrian left-winger Dominic Zwerger pulled the visitors back within striking distance as he parked himself on the doorstep before chipping a puck over an unsuspecting Keelan Williams.
Once again, the Ice struck back in quick order as Martin took a feed from Philp before making a couple nifty moves and depositing the puck past a helpless Hughson. Only 1:17 had elapsed since Zwerger’s marker and any life the Chiefs might have gotten was effectively squashed.
Martin’s goal, his second of the season, spelled the end of the night for Hughson, who allowed four goals on 18 shots, though he didn’t particularly have the best of help from the crew in front of him.
Zborosky added one final blow in the third period, cashing in on a rebound after sophomore centre Vince Loschiavo did his best Luke Philp impression by sneaking through the Chiefs defense.
While it was easy to focus on the five-goal offensive output form the Ice, the play of goaltender Keelan Williams — earning his first start of the season — kept the hosts in play early on.
The second-year puck-stopper was sharp throughout as the Chiefs outshot the Ice 37-31.
“Keelan was solid,” Pierce said of his 19-year-old netminder. “They came at us real hard. We knew they were going to throw a lot of pucks on net. We talked about that in our preparation. He was real good.
“He gave us some real solid stops after we took another two-goal lead. He gave us a chance to win the game and that’s what we need from him.”
Chiefs goaltender Tyson Verhelst came out for mop-up duty, turning aside 12 of the 13 shots he faced in a little more than a period’s worth of action.
After playing a defining role in two losses to the Calgary Hitmen last weekend, special teams were once again a contributing factor, this time in a different way, as the Ice went 2-for-4 on the man advantage, while blanking the Chiefs on their five power-play opportunities.
After claiming their first victory of the 2015-16 WHL campaign, the Ice (1-2-0-0) look to build upon the momentum Saturday night when they welcome a Central Division rival — the Lethbridge Hurricanes (1-1-0-0) — to Western Financial Place.
“We’ve seen them twice in exhibition and I don’t expect them to be any different in the way that they play,” Pierce said of the Hurricanes. “They’re going to be better in their execution of things, but they’re a real hungry, desperate hockey team with some of the tough years they’ve had and a new coach in Brent Kisio there, who’s doing a great job getting them motivated.
“We expect, similar to [Friday], a good, hard-working team. We’ve got to make sure we manage the puck real well and [have] good special teams again.”
Notes: Making his WHL debut Friday was Kootenay Ice centre Shane Allan… With Williams between the pipes and G Declan Hobbs manning a clipboard on the bench, 20-year-old G Wyatt Hoflin was a healthy scratch, along with Descheneau. The Ice were without D Tanner Lishchynsky (lower body, day to day), D Tyler King (knee, indefinite) and D Jason Wenzel (two-game team suspension)… The Chiefs were without G Matt Berlin, D Tyson Helgesen (upper body, three to five weeks), F Taylor Ross, D Jake Toporowski and F Jacob Cardiff… A paltry 2,019 spectators took in what was an entertaining contest Friday night at Western Financial Place…
Daily Townsman Three Stars1) C Luke Philp, Kootenay Ice (2G, 1A)2) RW Zak Zborosky, Kootenay Ice (2G)3) RW Jon Martin, Kootenay Ice (1G, 1A)