After failing to beat the Calgary Hitmen in all seven of their meetings last year, the Kootenay Ice knew that opening the season with a home-and-home series against their arch-rivals wouldn’t be easy. While the Ice showed signs of improvement over the weekend — compared to last year — according to coach Luke Pierce, the team still “has a long ways to go.”
While zero wins in two games should probably have earned them a failing grade, the Ice deserve some leniency as they pushed both games against the Hitmen into extra time. The final results of the weekend were a 3-2 shootout loss in Calgary on Friday, and a 2-1 overtime loss in Cranbrook on Saturday.
Kootenay’s inability to close out tie games has already become a big problem this year. In the preseason they took their opposition to two overtimes and one shootout in five games, but weren’t able to finish on top in any of them.
In stark contrast, the Calgary Hitmen easily earned an A+ in winning, after they got to beat the drum not twice, but three times this weekend. Hitmen captain, Mark Kastelic, appeared to have scored a winner with 29.3 seconds to go in Friday’s game, but the play was reversed several minutes later — after both teams were already well on the way to their dressing rooms.
The mascot had come down to celebrate on the ice and many fans were heading for the exits, when the referees decided that the puck had been covered before it went in, thus discounting the goal. Nevertheless, Taylor Sandheim won Calgary the game in the fifth round of a shootout anyway, allowing the Hitmen to celebrate victory for a second time in one night.
Goal Scoring: C+
The Ice scored just enough to get by, but didn’t put the puck in the net enough to ever build a comfortable lead. Their three goals in two games was a low tally even for the WHL. While Kootenay put up some good shot totals (64 in two games), and had more than enough chances sail wide of the net, coach Pierce thought their lack of finish was more than just bad luck.
“[Scoring goals] comes with bearing down in practice a little better,” Pierce said after Saturday’s game. “[We need to be] a little more determined to score goals and we need to see that improve.
“Goals are hard to come by in this league and you’ll get lucky once and awhile,” he continued. “But the guys who put up good numbers and score a lot, are guys that do a lot of the right things and I just don’t know if we’re doing enough of those right now.”
Pierce further explained that while the team did generate a fair number of good chances, goals wouldn’t come unless they focused a little more in training. It’s safe to say that the Ice’s ability to score is still a work in progress.
If there was one area where the Ice really shined both nights, it was between the pipes. Payton Lee was absolutely fantastic in his first two starts with Kootenay, saving 61 of 65 total shots and giving his team a chance to win. In the home opener — a true home opener for Lee, who was raised in Cranbrook — the Ice’s goaltending was especially brilliant.
“[Lee] was outstanding — he was composed, he was calm [and] he gave us a chance to win which is all we’ve ever asked of our goalies,” coach Pierce said on his performance. “All we need is for him to give us a chance and he did that, and more.”
Lee made crucial stops in the third period and during overtime on Saturday, including foiling a breakaway chance by Hitmen forward Taylor Sanheim with his glove two minutes into the extra frame. Although Lee was disappointed that he couldn’t steal his team the game, he said he’s happy to be the goalie for his hometown team.
“It felt good. I mean, it’s been seven years since I played in an Ice jersey at home, so it felt really good,” Lee said. After the start he’s had, Kootenay fans are likely feeling just as good.
First Period Play: C
Although in the first game in Calgary, the Ice took a 1-0 lead in the first on a 5-on-3 powerplay, they have so far showed a tendency to start slowly. In the home opener, they gave up a goal early and coach Pierce was not happy with their play.
“I didn’t like the first period at all, I thought it was awful,” Pierce said. “[The Hitmen] have a very young group over there [and] there was no excuse for us, with an older lineup, to be as bad as we were in the first period.”
While Pierce was happier with the second period, where the team looked more energized and tied the game, he thought the sloppy opening 20 minutes really sunk their chances.
First Line Play: B-
Going into this year, it was clear to the Ice’s management that their 20-year olds were going to have to lead the way. While Payton Lee has done a great job in net, their other two over-agers — Zak Zborosky and Matt Alfaro — were also sharp in opening weekend play. Pierce believes they could be even better though.
“Your top guys need to be your top guys, but we can’t rely on them as heavily as we’ve been,” he said. “And even for those guys, for [Zborosky] and [Alfaro], there’s opportunities for them to take advantage of some younger players and […] I won’t question some of their efforts,but I think at times they need to stick to the plan a little better.
“That’s part of them [as 20 year olds] trying to do a little bit too much at times,” he added. So far this year, Zborosky and Alfaro have shared a line with several different players including Max Patterson, Reed Morrison, Barrett Sheen and Vince Loschiavo. Having them find consistency and playing a key role will be crucial to the Ice’s chances this year.
In addition to their first period starts, Pierce was also not pleased with the amount of penalties the team has taken already this year. In two games the Ice have 29 penalty minutes, with only one of those being a five minute fighting major.
Their PIMs leader so far is rookie Tanner Sidaway, who has racked up 10 minutes with five minor calls against him. Seven other players have picked up one minor infraction apiece.
The sample size was small, with only one round of fisticuffs in the opening Ice-Hitmen series, but Max Patterson’s clean win against Hitmen captain Mark Kastelic in Calgary, gives Ice fans hope that even if they don’t make the playoffs, they’ll still be in the running for the heavyweight championship belt.
Penalty problems aside, Taylor Sidaway has looked impressive thus far in his first season with the Ice. Sidaway scored his first career WHL goal on Friday, and while it was a weird deflection off Calgary defenceman Vladislav Yeryomenko’s stick that made it trickle in, his ability to get in position and work hard for chances has made him a promising prospect.
Twin Powers: B-
The Taphorn twins, Keenan and Kaeden, were healthy scratches in the home opener, but played well against the Hitmen on Friday. They played on a line with Michael King who helped them form the rookie “mattress line” — two twins and a King — which impressed Pierce immensely.
“Michael King and the twins were at times our best line [in the season opener] and they gave us a ton of energy,” Pierce said, explaining that their absence on Saturday was only because roster decisions need to be made soon and the staff still wants to give everyone a look. “I was concerned about going into [Saturday] night not having them in our lineup and [their impact] showed in [the disappointing start of that] first period.”
When it comes to the Ice, you have to grade this one on a bit of a curve. When you compare it to the 7,524 who showed up for Calgary’s home opener, Cranbrook’s 1,997 doesn’t look great but since the Ice averaged 1,957 last season and the Hitmen averaged 8,217, it doesn’t seem so bad. It was an average night, but sometimes being average isn’t the worst thing.
Nikita Radzivilyuk is recognized for his Ovechkin-esque entrance during the home opener, where he raised his stick and performed a lap around the on-ice photographers, even though he was not in the night’s lineup.
The Saddledome Ice Crew is recognized for their ability to resurface centre ice after the carpet used by a dance group just before puck drop at the Calgary opener, caused damage.
Kootenay Ice Radio Play-by-play announcer Chris Wahl is recognized for his ability to stall during the extended 25 minute delay caused by the ice repair at the Saddledome.
102.9 The Drive is recognized for their great effort in the inaugural intermission bathtub race at the home opener, despite losing to the champion Cranbrook Townsman team.