The Kootenay Ice hope this weekend wasn’t the last they’ll see of the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Falling 5-2 to the ‘Canes on Saturday, the Ice returned to Cranbrook on Sunday afternoon, and were once again pounded 4-1 by their Lethbridge rivals.
With the Red Deer Rebels beating the Vancouver Giants on the road that same day, Kootenay has dropped out of third place in the Central Division, and now sits two points out of a playoff spot.
While the game was the end of the Ice and ‘Canes seven game season series — which Lethbridge won emphatically with a 6-1 record — if the Ice can pass Red Deer in the standings in their remaining 11 games this year, they’ll most likely meet each other in the first round of the postseason.
“I think we’re a better team, [but] for some reason when the day comes that we play against them, we always come up short,” said Ice forward Sebastian Streu after the game. “[We] really badly [want to play them again in the playoffs] because they think they’re better than us now, but we can prove them wrong.”
According to head coach James Patrick, his team had an opportunity to win on Sunday, but didn’t take advantage of the opportunities they were given. The Ice had seven power plays, including a five-minute man advantage and a 5-on-3, but only scored one goal.
“Their goalie saw every shot, and [we had] all five [of our] guys on the perimeter,” Patrick said. “We just played extremely soft, when it came down to it… not many [of our] guys [will go to the net], so we’re not going to score.”
The Ice were shorthanded from the drop of the puck, with their two most experienced defencemen in the press box. Dallas Hines was out with an injury, while Martin Bodak was serving a suspension for a kneeing game misconduct from the night before.
Despite all of Kootenay’s young blueliners factoring into the game, it was the few remaining veterans that disappointed Patrick.
“Bobby Russell and Zac Patrick didn’t hurt us, [and] Loeden [Schaufler] and Sam [Huston] played really well,” he said. “Our two older defencemen [struggled though]. Our first mistake, [that led to their] first goal, [was a play by Jonathan] Smart. It was just horrendous.
“I don’t care if you’re playing against their best players, at this stage, you’ve been in the league three years, you’ve got to show up, compete, and play hard. I expected more from him.”
That opening goal took awhile, as the game’s first period was fairly uneventful without goals for either team and single power plays either way. After the break, it was Lethbridge who quickly seized momentum and buried the game’s opener just 16 seconds into the frame.
A giveaway by Streu at the blueline, Smart missed a poke-check on Jordy Bellerive, and then fell to his knees giving the Hurricanes’ leading scorer a clear path to the net. Walking to the faceoff dot and firing a wrist shot, Bellerive scored his 42nd of the year by getting the puck over Duncan McGovern’s glove.
Less than two minutes later, Kootenay let in another goal as defenceman Ty Prefontaine took advantage of traffic in front of the net and slid in a wrister from the point.
It was a sudden and alarming wake up call.
“The first period, I thought we came out pretty strong, [but] we had a really rough start [to the second],” said Streu. “It shifted the momentum [and] got out of our hands… [then] we didn’t bounce back well enough.”
A few minutes later, Calen Addison made a wild hit on Ice forward Brad Ginnell, who was attempting to enter the attacking zone with the puck and was sent flying into the air. Addison was given a major penalty for checking to the head and removed from the game.
Getting five whole minutes of uninterrupted power play time, the Ice cashed in on a goal just a minute in. Making a pass from behind the net, Colton Kroeker assisted a goal by Colton Veloso to cut the deficit in half.
In the third period, already outshooting the visitors 27-18, the Ice had several grade-A opportunities to tie the game. Early on in the period, Owen Blocker was called for charging, and former Ice forward Jake Elmer was tagged with goalie interference after colliding with McGovern.
While they generated some pressure, nothing found its way past Reece Klassen in the Lethbridge net.
“I thought we had some really good looks [where] we got one chance, and we were fighting for the second chance, and [then] just didn’t have the hands maybe to make some finishing plays,” Patrick said on their power play struggles. “We were stickhandling [too much]. It’s something that [associate coach] Jon Klemm talks about everyday to our defencemen, and [he] gets so upset with them.
“You watch an NHL player, [and] it’s on their tape and on the net in a quarter of a second. So, that’s really frustrating.”
After failing to capitalize on another man advantage a few minutes later, the Ice had the game slip away from them with two minutes remaining as Brad Morrison scored with a long distance wrist shot.
Pulling their goalie in response, Kootenay immediately gave up an empty netter to Taylor Ross, which ended the night with a 4-1 score. Klassen finished the game with 35 saves and the rookie was named the first star.
“[Klassen] played a great game, but we also made him look good,” Streu said on the outcome. “There were a lot of pucks that hit him right in the chest or were ice burners. We have to pick corners better and start scoring goals.”
While the loss certainly did the team no favours in their quest to make the playoffs, Patrick does not believe that it has anything to do with a lack of effort.
“We’ve talked about [the fact] that we’ve needed to be in that playoff mode for a couple of weeks [and] I know, deep down, the players really want it,” he said. “It felt like a playoff game out there [today]. It was a very emotional, tense, tight game, with some hard feelings from both sides, but they prevailed in the end.
“No question, the guys want to make the playoffs really badly, but we haven’t done enough in the last three weeks to help our cause. We’re going to have to turn it around quickly.”
Kootenay’s next game is on Tuesday night in Medicine Hat against the Central Division-leading Tigers. In their last meeting, the Ice beat the Tigers 4-3, and with a game in hand to Red Deer, a positive result is absolutely crucial.
Puck drop is a 7 p.m. and the team then returns to Cranbrook for a Friday night game in which they host the Tigers.