Special teams was the name of the game Friday night in Cranbrook, as the Kootenay ICE opened the 2015-16 Western Hockey League campaign with a 4-2 loss at the hands of the Calgary Hitmen.
The visiting Hitmen (1-0-0-0), defending Central Division champions, went 3-for-7 on the man advantage, while the host ICE (0-1-0-0) put up a goose egg on six power-play opportunities on the second night of the WHL’s 50th anniversary season.
“We gave up three goals on the penalty kill, so we’ve got some work to do there, obviously,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Kootenay ICE, following Friday night’s loss. “Penalties are one thing and we probably took some we shouldn’t have in places we don’t like to. At the end of the day, we’ve got to find a way to be better.
“It takes time, it takes work and we haven’t had time to do that. That’s a pretty good team that’s got a pretty well-oiled power play running already. Guys are used to their structures and systems, so it’s to be expected. What I would have liked to see is just a little higher compete level and some sacrifice on our [penalty] kill to start until we get things ironed out.”
Guided by the veteran presence of defenceman Travis Sanheim, a 2014 first-round pick (17th overall) of the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, the Hitmen proved too much for a young ICE squad on opening night.
“I thought we worked hard and we moved the puck pretty well,” said the 19-year-old Sanheim. “We were a little scrambly at times, but overall, I thought we played a pretty strong game and used our forecheck to our advantage, got behind their ‘D’ and just worked it in there.”
Pesky Hitmen forward Carsen Twarynski didn’t let the home team build any momentum in the first period.
After ICE defenceman-turned-forward Nathyn Mortlock opened the scoring 5:15 into the festivities, the 17-year-old Twarynski responded 17 seconds later, chipping a backhand effort past ICE goaltender Wyatt Hoflin, to draw things even.
Late in the first, with ICE defenceman Cale Fleury serving a two-minute holding penalty, Sanheim snuck into the slot before putting a wrist shot past the glove of Hoflin and the Hitmen took a 2-1 lead into the dressing room after 20 minutes of play.
The veteran defenceman’s power-play goal kickstarted three consecutive conversions on the man advantage for Calgary, as twin brother Taylor Sanheim and Radel Fazleev, another Flyers prospect (2014 sixth round, 168th), cashed in during the second period.
Taylor’s tally came on a doorstep play as a rebound eluded Hoflin. The 5-foot-10 Sanheim was left with a gift and he made no mistake.
On Fazleev’s marker, the 6-foot-3 Sanheim brother quarterbacked the man advantage and though he wasn’t rewarded with a helper, he set the stage, before Jordy Stallard fed the 19-year-old Russian who one-timed a hot shot into the top corner for a 4-1 Hitmen lead.
While the special teams may have struggled on opening night for the ICE, one particular bright spot came past the midway point of the third period as 20-year-old Jon Martin tallied a short-handed marker to get the home team back within two.
“It was a simple chip off the wall from [Luke] Philp there on the penalty kill,” Martin said, recalling his tally Friday night. “I skated down and got a shot off, a rebound that ended up coming right to my stick.
“I think our guys know what to expect now. We got the jitters out tonight. We’ve just got to focus on the positives and fix the negatives that went on in [Friday’s] game.”
Unfortunately for the home team, that was all the offense mustered on opening night as the defending Central Division champions showed why they will once again be tough to beat.
“We played a full 60-minutes — that was our goal last season whenever we played,” said Travis Sanheim. “I thought we played the majority of that [Friday]. Obviously we want to keep cleaning that up as we get further along in the season — make sure that we’re playing that full 60.”
Despite being saddled with a loss in his WHL regular season coaching debut, Pierce saw positives to build upon.
“We had some great effort from our young guys,” Pierce said. “With Max Patterson, Noah Philp and Nathyn Mortlock anchoring what you’d call our fourth line — they gave us some great minutes today and got a goal for us, which was huge.
“We battled right to the end of the game. We didn’t quit. Down 4-1, it’s tough going into the third. But I thought we worked.”
Hoflin made 26 stops in a losing effort, while fellow overage goaltender Brendan Burke turned aside 22 pucks at the other end of the rink to collect the victory.
The two teams won’t take much time to breath as they hit the ice at Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome for a rematch tomorrow night (7 p.m.)
“We’ll have some small adjustments to make, but now you’ve got a barometer for where the work needs to be,” Pierce said. “We’ll make some adjustments to our special teams stuff. I thought our power play had some real good looks and chances. We’ve just got to capitalize. There’s not a lot that we can do between [Friday and Saturday]. We’ll make fine tweaks but we’ve got to make sure we’re ready to compete again.”
While the ICE played in front of the home crowd Friday, it will be the Hitmen facing the pressure of performing for their fans Saturday as they strive to open the season with two consecutive victories.
“A lot of guys are probably going to have some nerves with it being our home-opener,” Travis Sanheim said. “I think we just want to keep it simple and remember what we did well [Friday] and the things we need to improve on. Just kind of keep working on our game and keep working hard. The wins will come if we put in the work.”
Cranbrook Daily Townsman Three Stars of the Game:
1) Travis Sanheim, D, Calgary Hitmen2) Jon Martin, RW, Kootenay ICE3) Carsen Twarynski, LW, Calgary Hitmen
Notes: Stallard registered the only multi-point effort between the two clubs Friday night, collecting two assists for the Hitmen… Making their WHL debuts for the ICE were RW Max Patterson, C Noah Philp and D Dallas Hines… The ICE went without G Declan Hobbs, D Tanner Lishchynsky (lower body, week to week), D Tyler King (knee, indefinite), RW Jaedon Descheneau (St. Louis Blues) F Shane Allan, F Connor Barley and D Jason Wenzel… The Hitmen scratched G Lasse Petersen, D Jakob LaPointe, D Keegan Kanzig (Calgary Flames), D Matt Dorsey (lower body), F Dawson Martin, F Jake Virtanen (Vancouver Canucks), D Aaron Hyman… A total of 2,137 fans took in Friday’s home-opening game for the Kootenay ICE, not a promising start for a troubled club that averaged 2,239 fans per night in 2014-15…