The Kootenay Ice have slipped in recent weeks, but they have an opportunity to get back on track in a hurry over the next few days.
Continuing a stretch of five games in seven days on Wednesday night, the team is hosting the Saskatoon Blades, and are getting more and more desperate for wins.
The Ice have only won one of their last eight games, and are now hanging onto third spot in the Central Division by just two points. After spending much of the season safely in a playoff spot, as the majority of their division rivals struggled, the Red Deer Rebels have been surging lately.
While Kootenay has a 24-30-3-0 record, Red Deer is now knocking at the door with a record of 18-26-10-3, and also have seven wins and only one regulation loss in their last 10 outings.
Before next Monday, the Ice play four games at home while the Rebels are on the road with a few matches against tough B.C. Division competition. If they want a chance to play hockey into late March, the Ice need to take advantage of this busy week in Cranbrook.
“Obviously, it’s [a] crucial [stretch], but you can only look at the next game,” said Kootenay head coach James Patrick. “For me, [our success comes down to] compete and system… at this time of the year, when points are huge, you’ve got to work until it really burns, but you still have to play your system in the defensive zone. That’s what we’re going to need.”
Looking only at the Blades for now, the Ice know they are an opponent that their group can be competitive with. Currently in the second wild card spot, Saskatoon has a 28-26-2-1 record, and have two wins and a regulation loss to Kootenay so far this season.
Their only meeting in Cranbrook, however, was a 7-2 win for the Ice in which Brett Davis had an explosive two-goal performance and goalie Duncan McGovern made 28 saves.
According to forward Alec Baer, each one of the team’s remaining 15 games should be as close as you can get to playoff hockey.
“[All these games are] going to be a notch or two higher than the rest of the year,” Baer said. “All the teams are fighting for spots, so it’s going to be a battle every game.”
Baer has been a key offensive contributor of late, with six points in his last six games including a goal in Kootenay’s 5-2 loss to the Lethbridge Hurricanes, on Monday. Overall, he is second in team scoring with 49 points in 57 games, with captain Colton Kroeker being in the lead with 52 points in 54 games.
As for the Blades, they’ve been led in recent efforts by their goaltender. A 2001-born rookie, Nolan Maier is riding a three-game winning streak, which was highlighted by a 38-save shootout win over the Regina Pats on Monday.
Maier was in net when his team hosted Kootenay last Tuesday, and made 21 saves in a 5-3 victory. Forward Michael Farren had two goals in that game for Saskatoon, and was also responsible for his squad’s recent shootout winner against Regina.
The team’s leading scorer is 20-year-old forward Braylon Shmyr, who is having a career-season with 71 points in 57 games.
According to Baer, the Ice should be aided by the home crowd.
“I feel like we are a little bit of a different team at home,” he said. “It’s been [a] really good [atmosphere] this year, especially when all the kids are here. They’re all screaming, and that’s a big help for us. It makes us feel that we have guys behind us.”
Following the game against the Blades, the Ice host the Tri-City Americans on Friday and then have a weekend home-and-home with the Hurricanes.
Prior to the Friday night game against the Americans, the Ice, along with team governor Greg Fettes, will make a special presentation to the Canadian Mental Health Association, Kootenays Branch, and have also promised that if they sell out the game, they will add an additional $25,000.
Puck drop for Wednesday’s game is at 7 p.m. at Western Financial Place.