Matt Berlin was a wall, but the Kootenay Ice couldn’t hold on long enough to give him a win.
Playing in Medicine Hat on Wednesday night, the Ice goaltender made 29 saves on 31 shots while his team gave up a first period lead and then lost 3-1 to the Tigers.
The game-winner came with less than six minutes left, another heartbreaking ending in a string of tough luck for Kootenay. They now sit two points out of the third and final available playoff spot in the Central Division.
“I thought we competed and battle pretty hard as a team, but it’s a tight league with a lot of teams battling for [playoff spots],” Berlin said in post-game interview posted by the team after the game. “It takes a full 60 minutes to win and tonight we were just a couple of minutes short of that.”
Entering the contest following a busy roller coaster weekend, in which they beat the Tri-City Americans before losing twice to the Lethbridge Hurricanes, the Ice made the long bus trip to Tabby Town with desperation.
The desire to win was evident early on in the first period, especially in Berlin who made several high quality saves to spur his team to grab chances of their own.
As the two most disciplined teams in the league — with the Tigers only having 495 penalty minutes this season and the Ice with a second-to-last-in-the-WHL 580 minutes — the game’s first taste of special teams ended up being a crucial moment.
While it was Kootenay who picked up the first penalty near the midway mark of the opening frame, with Peyton Krebs being tagged for tripping, it didn’t end up hurting them.
Seconds into the penalty kill, Brett Davis grabbed a turnover and proceeded to march in on a breakaway, beating Michael Bullion with a high snap shot.
Killing off the remaining Tigers’ power play time, the Ice entered the second period with a 1-0 lead. They encountered a much different Medicine Hat team in the next 20 minutes, however.
With the home side mounting significant pressure, the Ice defence were forced to block key shots while Berlin handled the rest. The Ice pressed for an insurance marker on a power play near the middle of the period but were stymied. Coming out of the penalty box, James Hamblin nearly had a breakaway but Berlin made a heroic slide, miles away from his crease, to save his perfect night.
A few minutes later though, a turnover on a simple clearing attempt by Jonathan Smart flipped the script. Coughing the puck up right to Tyler Preziuso at the side of the net, Berlin didn’t have a chance as the winger popped it over him.
With a tied game in the third, the teams engaged in careful mistake-free hockey to begin the third, but the ice was tilting in Medicine Hat’s favour.
Berlin and his goal posts bailed Kootenay out a few times, but just as overtime was peeking in the horizon, Hamblin started a rush play that went up to Mark Rassell who fed Bryan Lockner at the side of the net for a huge goal.
Suddenly needing a goal, Kootenay almost pulled off the same play between Kroeker and Baer, but Baer missed the net. The team then tried their luck with an empty net, but couldn’t get a shot through and in the final 20 seconds watched David Quenneville sail a puck from deep in his own zone into a Berlin-free cage.
With a record of 25-34-3-0, the Ice are in even more desperate need for wins following the loss. The Rebels have two games in hand and play the bottom-of-the-standings Calgary Hitmen on Thursday, while Kootenay’s next game is in Cranbrook on Friday night as host the Tigers.
NOTES: The Ice’s second overall pick in last summer’s WHL Bantam Draft, Connor McClennon, played his third WHL game on Wednesday. He was recalled as an affiliate player last week and is still yet to earn his first point in the league.