While playing in Moose Jaw this season, the Kootenay Ice are winless in two games and have suffered an 11-2 goal deficit.
At home against the Warriors, the team is perfect. The Ice won their only Cranbrook game, 2 – 1 against Moose Jaw, back on October 17.
It’s not a lot to instill confidence for Wednesday night, as the Warriors are the top team in the WHL, with a 46-13-1-2 record, but it’s something. According to head coach James Patrick, while they’ll likely have to play a close-to-perfect game, he’s optimistic about their chances.
“We’ve beat this team here before, and this year we’ve played really well against some really good teams,” Patrick said after practice on Tuesday afternoon. “[We beat] Tri City [a few weeks ago here], Spokane, a month ago… so we have played much better at home.
“We’re going to need our best effort from everyone, [and] we might need a great game from our goalie.”
The Warriors are stacked with talent this season. Overagers Brayden Burke and Jayden Halbgewachs are second and third in league scoring, with 110 points in 58 games and 108 points in 62 games, respectively.
The team also made a splash at the WHL trade deadline, acquiring one of the top defensive prospects in the country in Kale Clague, from the Brandon Wheat Kings. A second round pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 2016, Clague played for Canada’s gold medal-winning team at the World Juniors, and has 66 points in 46 games this year.
Filling out the roster is another team Canada player, Brett Howden, who was a 2016 first-round selection in the NHL Entry Draft, and former Ice alternate captain Vince Loschiavo.
The game will mark Loschiavo’s first return to Cranbrook, where he played for three-and-a-half seasons, before being traded in December.
“There is a reason they are number one overall, [and] they’ve been the best team in the East all year long,” Patrick said of his opponents. “Their defence, their top six, are as good as, or better than, anyone’s, [and they have] three lines of top-end speed.
“[Then], they’ve got some of their physical guys on their fourth line.”
One of those physical players is another name familiar to Kootenay fans. Barrett Sheen started the season with the Ice, before being traded to the Warriors in November. At 6’4, Sheen is an intimidating presence and leads the league in penalty minutes with 136 in 54 games.
In order to contain a roster that includes as much speed and physicality as Moose Jaw, Patrick believes his team has to be smart with their matchups.
“Every team, that plays us, tries to be physical with us [because] we’re a young, smaller, skating team,” the coach explained. “I think it’s important for us to not overextend shifts, which we have done over these last two weeks. That’s totally on me, for allowing that to happen, [and] I think it gets some guys out of the game, and it fatigues your top players.
“We might change every whistle, if that’s what it takes. [Our guys need to] get on for 30, skate as hard as [they] can, play at a fast pace, and then get off.”
Currently four points behind the Red Deer Rebels for third place in the Central Division, the final available playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, the Ice have slumped at an inopportune time with five-straight losses, and only two wins in their past 10 games.
Despite their lack of results, Patrick hasn’t been too upset with his team’s play, and believes that if they keep their mistakes to a minimum, they should have a good shot at winning every night.
“We’ve got to stick to our game plan, [and] we can’t give up the odd man rushes that we did in Spokane [on Saturday night],” he said. “[We also] have to compete for loose pucks, get pucks by their defencemen, try and get in foot races, [and] move the puck quickly.
“We [need to] make it easy on ourselves, [and] really work. If our defencemen work [on] going back for pucks: skating as fast as they can, getting it, getting [their] eyes up ice, and moving it quickly, you won’t be taking some of the hits that we sometimes do. It’s going to be no different playing against a team like Moose Jaw.”
So far this season, the Ice have been led by overagers Colton Kroeker and Alec Baer. Kroeker has 55 points in 61 games, while Baer has 53 in 64 games. Centreman Brett Davis, meanwhile, has come on strong in the latter half of the year and has 51 points in 64 games.
While he’s not a top point-producer, alternate captain Keenan Taphorn returned to the lineup on Saturday after nearly a month-long injury, and should help the team moving forward.
“We’ve missed him,” Patrick said of Taphorn. “He’s had a really solid year, [and] he’s been really big on our penalty kill. He’s been a guy who can play anywhere in the lineup, but most of the year, he’s played with top players because he is a guy who will do a lot of the grunt work.
“We don’t have a ton of depth, and you miss one or two guys who have been key contributors. It shows, and it is nice to have him back.”
Taphorn is excited by the challenge of playing the top team in the WHL.
“[The Warriors] have really good speed, [and] a really good couple of lines,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to work hard, get the puck in, and pressure their defence. We need to work as a team for the full 60 minutes.”
Despite their fantastic season, Moose Jaw is headed into Wednesday’s game on a one-game losing streak. Despite outshooting the Hurricanes 40-20 in Lethbridge on Tuesday, they lost 4-3.
Puck drop for tonight’s game is at 7 p.m. The Ice then play in Red Deer on Friday, and return home for a Sunday matinee, against the Medicine Hat Tigers.