The Kootenay Ice will be looking to pass a major test against the Brandon Wheat Kings this weekend and do so with flying colours.
Hosting games on Friday and Saturday, with ‘Pink the Rink’ night taking place on the latter, the team is hoping to carry the momentum of their recent 7-3 win over Lethbridge into the doubleheader.
“We went through the video, [saw] the good as well as what needed to be corrected, [but now] that’s in the past,” said head coach James Patrick on Thursday afternoon. “At this time of the year, coming into the stretch drive, you just play your system and then, you compete and work hard.”
While their opponents this weekend are in the middle of a long road trip, struggling to win games and aren’t far removed from trading two of their best players, the Ice know better than to take them lightly.
The Manitoba club may be on a six-game losing streak, including five straight defeats during their U.S. Division swing, but they still hold the third best record in the Eastern Conference and nearly beat the reigning WHL champion Seattle Thunderbirds on Tuesday in a 6-5 shootout loss.
“They came close to dominating Seattle for two periods [and just] had a 4-1 lead slip away late,” Patrick said. “I watched the game and they really outplayed them. They skated well [and] are a hard forechecking team who like to work behind the net.
The Ice (21-23-3-0) have faced off against the Wheat Kings (28-15-3-2) twice this season, in back-to-back games in Brandon in early November, and earned a win and a loss. Both lineups have changed considerably since then, however.
The Wheat Kings have gotten a lot younger after trading away top defenceman (and Team Canada World Junior player) Kale Clague to the Moose Jaw Warriors, as well as former captain Tanner Kaspick to the Victoria Royals at the trade deadline.
“I think Clague was one of the top two defencemen in the league and the second game we played [against them], he was the best player on the ice by a mile,” Patrick said. “[But] they have mobile young defencemen.
“Obviously, that’s a big void [without Clague] and Kaspick is as hard a power forward as there is in the league, but I’m not seeing much of a drop off because they’ve got some good, young, skilled [players] with some size.”
Leading the team offensively, however, they still have two proven WHL veterans in Stelio Mattheos and Ty Lewis. Mattheos, a former first overall Bantam Draft selection, has 65 points in 48 games this season, and Lewis has 75 in as many games. In the team’s game against Seattle, Lewis had two goals and two assists.
On Kootenay’s end, they’ll be counting on continued dominance from their only NHL prospect: Brett Davis. With 17 points in his last 14 games, the Manitoban-centreman has been Kootenay’s best player of late.
“Every game he’s been a difference maker for us,” Patrick said of the Dallas Stars draft pick. “When he plays with attack and pace, and he battles, he’s the strongest guy on the ice.”
As for who starts in net, Patrick said that it would, ideally, be a split for the two games between Duncan McGovern and Matt Berlin. Beyond the games, the Ice players also expressed excitement for Saturday’s ‘Pink the Rink’ night, an annual anti-bullying awareness initiative. This year, the team will be wearing special white jerseys with pink stripes, in addition to pink laces and sock tape.
“Obviously, anti bullying is [an important cause],” Davis said. “We’re trying to support that [and] it’s good to show the fans and the community that we’re not just hockey players, that we think about that kind of stuff too.”
As for the jerseys?
“They’re pretty sweet,” Davis added.
Puck drop for both Friday and Saturday’s games are at 7 p.m. at Western Financial Place.
NOTES: Patrick did not comment on specific injuries, but stated that in regards to the current injury situation that “we’re healthy”. Dallas Hines has missed the past four games with an upper-body injury and Sebastian Streu left Tuesday’s game early and did not return.
Despite the Ice being in third place in the Central Division and the Wheat Kings being in third in the Central, there is a 16-point difference between the two teams in the overall standings, in Brandon’s favour.