Ice forward Jesse Zaharichuk (left) is relishing his role on the top line for head coach Luke Pierce.

Ice forward Jesse Zaharichuk (left) is relishing his role on the top line for head coach Luke Pierce.

Zaharichuk relishing role with Kootenay Ice as Blades visit

Peppy 18-year-old Jesse Zaharichuk finding success and chemistry on top line for Kootenay Ice head coach Luke Pierce

When Jesse Zaharichuk arrived in Cranbrook after a trade brought him to the Kootenay Ice from the Kamloops Blazers Nov. 29, he said he wanted to be a reliable, top-six forward.

Head coach Luke Pierce said he was hopeful Zaharichuk was ready to commit to being a core leader and top-end player after starting his major junior career as more of a “periphery” forward.

Fast forward to January and Zaharichuk is proving to be a quality return on the 2018 fifth-round bantam draft choice president and general manager Jeff Chynoweth shipped to the Blazers.

In seven games since the holiday break, the 5-foot-8, 155-pound native of Sherwood Park, Alta., has stacked up three goals and eight points, all while skating on the top line with veterans Matt Alfaro and Zak Zborosky.

“We’ve found some good chemistry so far,” Zaharichuk said prior to practice at Western Financial Place Monday.

“It’s pretty easy to play with them. They’re pretty good players. Just get open, try to get them the puck and then usually something happens.”

Though it took some time getting acquainted and finding his place within the lineup, the speedy Zaharichuk has been nothing short of reliable. Since coming over to the Eastern Conference from the Blazers, Zaharichuk has tallied four goals and 12 points in 16 games with the Ice, all but matching his totals — four goals and 13 points — through 17 games in Kamloops prior to the trade.

“He’s just been more consistent, not just within a game, but from game to game,” Pierce said Monday. “He hasn’t had a lot of extended minutes or shifts where he’s not involved and he’s pushing himself. Playing with two pretty good players is helping, but he’s kept pace with them and been a catalyst for our offense.”

With 25 points through 33 games this season, Zaharichuk has eclipsed the career highs he set during his rookie season (2014-15) with the Blazers, when he scored three goals and assisted on 12 others.

“The big thing for me, not just Jesse, but Matt and Zak, is sometimes you can get complacent because you’re leading this team in offense,” Pierce said. “But when you put their numbers up against other top lines across the league, they still have some work to do. That’s the way they need to start looking at themselves — not comparables with where they stack up on our team, it’s comparables with where they are with other top lines.

“They can’t get complacent. They have to push themselves to produce every single night and that’s the pressure of being a top player.”

As it stands, Zborosky leads the team and the trio with 33 points in 30 games — good enough for 70th overall in the Western Hockey League. Zaharichuk ranks 128th with Alfaro not far behind in 131st (24 points).

For comparison’s sake, Kelowna Rockets 20-year-old forward Tyson Baillie leads the league in scoring with 66 points through 42 games.

Still, the recent stretch is promising when looking at the development of a young, rebuilding hockey team and Zaharichuk has certainly seen growth in the group since the calendar turned to 2016.

“When I first got here, we went on that 16-game losing streak and ever since Christmas, everybody seems to be more dialled in, more focused,” Zaharichuk said. “We’ll do the little things to win. It’s been good. We’ve found ways to win.

“Confidence is a big thing with this group. After a goal, we’re trying not to get down or sulk. If we keep our confidence up and know that we can win a game every game, we’ll keep that mindset going.”

While a 7-1 loss to the Lethbridge Hurricanes Saturday wasn’t a memorable outing, it remains the outlier in 2016 as the Ice have managed to collect points in three of four games to start the new year.

“We have a record that we’d like to achieve here going down in our last 34 games, we have some targets within the game that we want to achieve and you just have to keep your mind focused on that stuff,” Pierce said. “We’ve been pretty good so far with it.”

Next up for the Ice (8-32-3-0) is a Tuesday test against the Saskatoon Blades (15-23-3-0) in Cranbrook.

The Blades come into the contest having lost three straight, with Tuesday marking the first on a five-game road trip.

Puck drop between the Ice and Blades is slated for 7 p.m. on 2-for-1 Tuesday at Western Financial Place.

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