Hitmen spoil WHL opening weekend for Ice

The Calgary Hitmen spoiled WHL opening weekend for the Kootenay Ice, earning back-to-back victories

There’s no love lost when it comes to the Kootenay Ice and Calgary Hitmen as the two clubs renewed their longstanding Central Division rivalry this past weekend and the puck dropped on the 50th anniversary season of the Western Hockey League.

The two clubs battled on back-to-back nights of the 2015-16 WHL campaign with the Hitmen getting off to a quick start to their title defense, earning victories of 4-2 Friday at Western Financial Place and 1-0 back home at Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome.

Friday, it was special teams costing the Ice, as the Hitmen scored three power-play goals en route to the win.

“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.”

Defenceman Nathyn Mortlock, making his Kootenay Ice regular season debut on the team’s fourth forward line with Max Patterson and Noah Philp, opened the scoring Friday.

Pierce was happy with the play of that line, along with the battle his young crew showed.

“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.”

After Mortlock’s goal made it 1-0, the Hitmen killed any momentum as left winger Carsen Twarynski responded 17 seconds later.

From there, the Hitmen special teams took over, with veteran defenceman Travis Sanheim leading the way.

Sanheim, a 2014 first-round pick (17th overall) of the Philadelphia Flyers, scored the first of three consecutive Hitmen goals with the man advantage.

“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.”

The power play was connected to the 6-foot-4 Sanheim in one way or another.

Twin brother Taylor Sanheim tallied the 3-1 marker before fellow Flyers prospect Radel Fazleev (2014 sixth round, 168th) made it 4-1 with the man advantage in the second period.

Ice veteran Jon Martin added a short-handed goal to close out the scoring Friday.

Between the pipes, both the Ice and Hitmen deployed overagers Wyatt Hoflin and Brendan Burke, respectively, both nights.

In all, Hoflin made 63 saves but it wasn’t enough to earn him or the Ice a win. At the other end, Burke turned aside 43 pucks, including a 21-save shutout effort Saturday on home ice.

Hitmen defenceman Loch Morrison was the lone man to beat Hoflin on Saddledome ice as a veteran Calgary squad showed it will once again be tough to beat in the competitive Central Division.

“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.”

The Ice host two home games next weekend, welcoming the Spokane Chiefs (Friday at 7 p.m.) and Lethbridge Hurricanes (Saturday at 7 p.m.) to Western Financial Place.

Notes: Making their WHL debuts for the Ice this weekend were RW Max Patterson, C Noah Philp and D Dallas Hines (Friday) and D Jason Wenzel (Saturday)… Injured and missing the weekend games for the Ice were D Tanner Lishchynsky (lower body, week to week) and D Tyler King (knee, indefinite)…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… Prior to Saturday’s game in Calgary, the Ice re-assigned F Connor Barley (1998) to a team still to be determined. Barley did not skate in Friday’s season opener, but played in five pre-season games, registering two assists…