The Kootenay Ice’s rivalry with the Calgary Hitmen has been one of the WHL’s best for years, but tonight it’ll take a back seat to a more familial fight.
Despite both teams already being out of playoff contention, the game has serious bragging rights implications for Ice rookie Peyton Krebs and his older brother Dakota, a defenceman for the Hitmen.
“I think some guys already realize how big this is for me,” Peyton said with a smile on Tuesday. “I know back in [Calgary], they’re saying ‘We just want to beat Kootenay because of the Krebs’ rivalry.”
While Peyton and Dakota have already played each other once before in the WHL, when the younger Krebs was a 15-year-old call up in Tri-City where the elder Krebs was playing for the Americans at the time, this game will have much bigger stakes.
Playing at the Saddledome in Calgary, the closest NHL arena to the brothers’ home in Okotoks, Alberta, there are sure to be plenty of family and friends on hand for the game. For Peyton, he’d just like to counter last year’s 7-4 defeat by Dakota and the Americans.
“I [didn’t have] the best success against Tri-City, so I definitely want to give it to him tomorrow night,” Krebs said, adding that he knows the Ice will have their work cut out for them. “I’ve been paying attention because [of] my brother, [and] they’re a hard team to play against… over the last five games, they’ve had one goal games with the best teams in the league.
“We should treat them like they are the best team in the league and just give it our best.”
In six head-to-head games this season, the Ice had five wins and only one loss against Calgary, but will be facing a different team than the group they beat in four consecutive games to end December.
While the Hitmen were sellers at the trade deadline, their younger players (and new veterans like Dakota Krebs) have led the team to a solid record to close out their season. Calgary have won three of their last six games, while only losing once in regulation during that span.
Kootenay, on the other hand, are on a 10-game losing streak, but have similarly been involved in tight games against top-end competition and have single points in three of their last four contests.
“[Calgary has] some real good speed, [and] I think they’re doing the same thing as us, playing their young guys a lot,” said head coach James Patrick. “They’ve been competitive [and] I expect a really tough challenge. I’m not so concerned about them [though], I just want our guys to go out there and play hard and play the right way.”
During their last game in Edmonton, a 4-3 overtime loss, Patrick used a lineup filled with prospects and younger players in bigger roles than they’ve been accustomed to. Seeing who can be relied upon to fill a bigger role next season, will be a big focus to end this year’s campaign.
“I want to definitely take a look at some younger players and give them a chance to play,” Patrick said. “I wanted to give some guys an opportunity to play up in the line-up, maybe a bit bigger role, whether it’s a guy like Michael King [or] Brad Ginnell.
“I’ve talked to the guys, [and] if we’re going to play the games, we want to win. It still comes down to the competitive nature we all have.”
According to forward Sebastian Streu, who came in as an unknown player from Europe at training camp and has emerged into one of the Ice’s solid contributors, tryouts for next season have already begun.
“[General Manager] Matt [Cockell] said a couple of days ago that next season starts now,” Streu explained. “[The] coaches will be watching who’s going to show up to play and who’s going to take those spots. Obviously, we’re going to lose three very good players with [our overagers leaving], [so] now it’s time for the young guys to step up and fill those spots.”
Throughout the year, the team’s 20-year-olds have led the way for Kootenay with captain Colton Kroeker and fellow forward Alex Baer tied for the team point lead with 57 each. Colton Veloso, meanwhile, has 44 points in 68 games.
“As 20-year-olds, [the playoffs were] something that they really strived for and they talked about early in the year, [so there was disappointment there],” Patrick said. “[Now] it’s their last games in the league, and they’ve had some really good careers. All three have played really well for us [and] play[ed] in almost every situation.
“I want them to enjoy [these last few games].”
Joining them as impact players on the scoresheet this year, have been 18-year-old Dallas Stars’ prospect Brett Davis, and Krebs, the WHL’s rookie scoring leader. Davis has 54 points in 69 games, while Krebs has 52 points in 64 games.
The Hitmen are led in scoring by overager Jakob Stukel, who has 60 points in 68 games, and 19-year-old forward Jake Kryski, who has 51 points in 68 games. Belarussian defenceman Vladislav Yeryomenko, meanwhile, has had a breakout season with 40 points in 60 games.
Both Kootenay and Calgary have played 69 games this year. The Ice have a record of 25-38-5-1 and the Hitmen are 22-36-9-2. A regulation loss for Kootenay would drop them to second to last place in the Eastern Conference, while the Edmonton Oil Kings have already locked up the bottom of the league standings.
Puck drop for tonight’s game is 7 p.m. in Calgary. The Ice wrap up their season this weekend with a home-and-home against the Red Deer Rebels ending in Cranbrook on Saturday night.
NOTES: The Ice reassigned forward Connor McClennon back to the Northern Alberta X-Treme of the CSSHL this week in order for him to compete for the team in their upcoming playoffs.
Kootenay still have plenty of affiliate players on their roster for the final week of the season, including defenceman Jordan Chudley, forwards Blake Allan and Eli Lieffers, and goaltender Jesse Makaj.
Makaj, the team’s second-round pick (23rd overall) in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft was recalled today from the Greater Vancouver Canadians of the BCMML, where he has an 8-8-1 record in 18 games and a goals-against average of 3.15.