Their final weekend won’t have the gravity that they hoped it would earlier in the year, but the Kootenay Ice still have ample motivation to win.
Coming into the final weeks of the season, the Ice seem poised to battle with the Red Deer Rebels until the bitter end for the final spot in the Central Division playoff picture. Instead, Kootenay’s season went downhill while Red Deer caught fire and mathematically eliminated the Ice last weekend.
Friday and Saturday’s home-and-home between the two teams will no longer have postseason implications, but will rather be the Cranbrook club’s last chance to not end the year on a massive losing streak.
While they’ve only lost by a single goal (including two overtimes and two shootouts) in their last five outings, the Ice are on a season-high 11-game losing streak.
Although not making the playoffs has made the end of the year tough, according to head coach James Patrick, his group won’t hang their heads.
“We didn’t meet [our] goal, which is disappointing and heartbreaking for young men at this age [but] I know they gave their best,” Patrick said. “So, I want them to enjoy their last three games in the league. They’ve harped on a lot about, playing for each other. As a group, they like each other, they like spending time with each other, they’ve been really close.
“There’s not one guy on the team that doesn’t get along. It’s a really good group of kids. I think, again, they’re going to go out and play hard for each other, play our system, play the right way and have fun.”
Playing in Calgary on Wednesday night, the Ice lost 3-2 in a shootout while backstopped admirably by 17-year-old Jesse Makaj in his first ever WHL start. Patrick also tried out some new lines, including putting all three of his 20-year-old forwards together as one unit.
The combination of Alec Baer, Colton Kroeker and Colton Veloso played well in the loss and Baer scored the game’s tying goal on a power play to force extra time.
“We’re trying to use some different combinations [and have] Peyton [Krebs] play with Brett Davis to see how their chemistry works [and] we want to keep out three 20-year-olds together for their last three games in the league,” Patrick said. “They’ve been the driving force for our team and have led us in points [and] two-way play.”
While Makaj has already been reassigned to the Greater Vancouver Canadians of the BCMML, the final two games will no doubt continue to see a presence of prospects in the Ice lineup as well as expanded roles for other young regulars.
Kootenay has a large contingent of youngsters currently with the team, including affiliate players Jordan Chudley, Eli Lieffers, Blake Allan and Nolan Orzeck. Patrick has been very impressed with all of them in their recent action.
“Orzeck is a skilled, puck-moving defenceman who has really good vision [and] Blake Allan has been really impressive with him up front,” the coach said. “Eli was a kid that we had here for a month at the start of the year [but] we just felt his skills weren’t ready for this level, but he is a better player now six months later.
“He is a 6’5″ kid who, by all accounts, grew so much last year, that he’s just getting comfortable with his body. I think he could be a dark horse for us.”
Although the Rebels are the playoff team, the Ice are currently leading the season series with three wins in two games. Friday’s game in Red Deer will be a rematch of a showdown two weeks ago, in which the Rebels won 5-4 in a shootout.
With three straight wins and only seven losses in their last 24 games, the Rebels are still red hot heading into the weekend and will be looking to keep up their momentum before their first-round matchup against the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Leading Red Deer in points this season is 20-year-old winger Mason McCarty who has 73 points in 68 games, including nine in five games against Kootenay this year. In net, rookie Ethan Anders has been a rock and has a 3.05 goals against average and a 0.905 save percentage in 40 games.
For Kootenay, the scoring lead is a tie between Baer and Kroeker who both have 58 points, while Peyton Krebs leads all WHL rookies with 52 points in 65 games.
Puck drop for Friday’s game at the Enmax Centrium is at 7:00 p.m. MDT and Saturday’s home finale is at the same time. The final game in Cranbrook will be the annual ‘Fan Appreciation Game’ with regular season player award winners announced prior to the start of the game.