Even to the untrained eye, Jesse Zaharichuk’s on-ice contributions for the Kootenay Ice through the month of January have been pretty obvious.
The 18-year-old native of Sherwood Park, Alta., is in the midst of an eight-game point streak, having collected three goals, eight assists and 11 points since Jan. 3.
“It’s not just me, I’d say probably my line with Alfaro and Zborosky, we’ve really lately been able to focus in and gain some chemistry,” Zaharichuk said Thursday afternoon prior to practice at Western Financial Place. “It seems to be working for us as of lately.
“I try not to focus too much on [the streak]. I just want to go out and play. But it’s kind of in the back of my mind. I try not to focus on it, but it’s nice to try to be able to keep it alive.”
No other member of the Kootenay Ice has recorded a scoring streak of that length so far in the 2015-16 Western Hockey League campaign, and while those kind of numbers jump off the page, head coach Luke Pierce suggests there are subtleties within Zaharichuk’s game that are deserving of credit as well.
“He’s a smart, he’s a smart hockey player,” Pierce said Thursday afternoon prior to practice at Western Financial Place. “He does some little things that I don’t think maybe get noticed as much. His shift length is really good. He keeps himself fresh and I think he changes at the right times more often than not. It seems like such a small detail, but it’s an important one for us.
“When he’s out there, he obviously players with some pretty good players and he takes advantage of that. But there are other details in his game that go unnoticed. We’re still trying to push him to be a real elite scorer and he’s getting closer.”
Zaharichuk has spent the bulk of his time suiting up on the top line alongside Zak Zborosky and Matt Alfaro for coach Pierce, but Saturday in Spokane the extension of his eight-game point streak came after the Kootenay bench boss decided to shuffle his combinations around in the third period of play.
The peppy 5-foot-8, 155-pound right winger hit Jared Legien with a beautiful pass at centre ice, springing the rookie in alone on Chiefs goaltender Tyson Verhelst for his third goal of the campaign.
“You need that versatility,” Pierce said. “He needs to be able to manufacture things with other people. Teams are going to start to really narrow in on his line with Matt and Zak, so we’re going to have to get them away from some match ups. He’s going to have to make sure he’s putting guys in the right situation to capitalize.
“That was a nice thing to see — him generating some offense playing with different players, for sure. Hopefully that’s a confidence booster for him.”
Zaharichuk is quick to say his confidence is up and how could it not be.
Acquired Nov. 29 from the Kamloops Blazers in exchange for a fifth-round pick in the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft, the shifty forward has quickly shot up Kootenay Ice scoring charts.
Heading into the weekend, Zaharichuk is hot on the heels of his linemate and team scoring leader Zborosky, having collected nine goals and 30 points in 38 contests so far this season.
While the Ice (8-36-4-0) open a two-game Alberta road trip Friday when they face the Red Deer Rebels (31-15-1-2) at the Enmax Centrium, Zaharichuk and Dylan Stewart, another Kootenay newcomer this season, are eagerly looking forward to Sunday’s contest in Edmonton against the Oil Kings (19-23-6-1).
Zaharichuk, a native of Sherwood Park, and Stewart, from west Edmonton, grew up playing against one another in the Edmonton area.
“We played against each other our whole minor hockey careers,” Stewart said Thursday. “He was a Sherwood Park kid, I was a CAC Northwest Zone type of kid.
“We kind of hung out this summer this bit. Never thought we’d play together, but it’s pretty nice… Coming here, I didn’t know a lot of guys. Getting more people from the Edmonton area is always nice.
“[Jesse has] scored some big goals for us. Even just setting up Alfaro and ‘Z’. He quarterbacks the power-play at the point and I haven’t seen him make a bad play, really. He’s very good offensively.”
Before Stewart and Zaharichuk get to taste a little home cooking and catch up with friends and family, they’re tasked with the deep, stacked roster of the Red Deer Rebels.
“They clearly stacked their entire roster, they’re pretty intimidating on paper,” Stewart said.
“We just need to follow the plan that [coach] Luke [Pierce] gives us, finish all our hits and play hard. They’re going to be offensive and they’re going to get their chances. But if we play the right way and play defensively first, I think we have a good chance.”
The Ice are expected to be without forward Austin Gray, who is dealing with a concussion, which he suffered in practice, according to Pierce.
Outside of that, and the obvious and on-going unavailability of Jaedon Descheneau (shoulder surgery), the Ice are relatively healthy heading into the weekend.
“Every team gets fired up to play against Red Deer,” Pierce said. “We obviously know what they have in store this year. There’s no secret about how they’re dangerous. Guys are fired up to play them and energized.”
Puck drop between the Rebels and Ice is slated for 7 p.m. at the Enmax Centrium in Red Deer Friday night.
After that, the Ice take Saturday off before wrapping up a quick two-game swing with a Sunday matinee (4 p.m.) against the Edmonton Oil Kings.