One name — Wyatt Hoflin — and one number — 56 — is really all you need to know.
The 21-year-old veteran goaltender made a whopping 56 saves, establishing a new career high, as he backstopped the Kootenay Ice to a 4-3 victory over the visiting Medicine Hat Tigers Saturday night at Western Financial Place.
“You’re almost speechless, the numbers say it all,” said Luke Pierce, head coach of the Kootenay Ice, following Saturday’s win. “Maybe our guys are trying to help him stretch out his saves record, I’m not sure. But he was outstanding and not just with his saves. He played the puck really well again tonight, as he always does. He was jumping on some loose pucks that other guys couldn’t find and poking them away from trouble.
“He was extremely sharp and I’m happy for him that we found a way to finish it off.”
Hoflin established a new all-time franchise record for saves earlier this season, surpassing Natan Lieuwen and his 4,188 stops. With the number still rising, Hoflin has made 4,384 stops over his four-year WHL career.
On top of stretching his all-time record Saturday night, Hoflin faced 59 shots for the second the time this season. Back on Dec. 2, the 6-foot-1, 182-pound puckstopper turned aside 55 shots in a 4-1 loss to the Kelowna Rockets.
“I’m tired, I’m kind of ready to go to bed,” Hoflin said with a smile Saturday night after collecting his eighth victory of the season. “I was just trying to take some deep breaths and slow my heart rate down. It was pumping pretty quick for most of the game.”
“It’s good, [the wins] have been few and far between this season and there’s games where I play better than today and the pucks find a way in the net. It was good they were hitting me today.”
The overage goaltender has seen an outstanding amount of rubber in his final two seasons of major junior hockey. During the 2014-15 campaign, Hoflin established a new franchise record for saves in a season as he steered away 1,837 pucks across 67 appearances. So far in 2015-16, he’s made 1,627 saves in 51 appearances.
“He’s unbelievable, man,” said Ice forward River Beattie. “That guy will work hard. He knows when to battle and he makes the right reads. He gives it all, day in and day out.”
While he faced more rubber overall last season, Hoflin has been called upon to make a significantly higher number of saves on a nightly basis in 2015-16. To date, Hoflin has kicked out an average of 31.9 saves per game, besting his average of 27.4 saves per night from last season, in what was a record-setting year for the veteran.
Hoflin made saves of both mass quantity and mass quality Saturday night. While the Tigers did their best to shoot from everywhere, there was no shortage of grade ‘A’ scoring opportunities for the overage goaltender to fight off.
After falling behind in the first period, the Tigers sent 44 shots in on net over the final 40 minutes of play.
In the first period, Hoflin stoned Mason Shaw on a backdoor power-play effort, sprawling post-to-post to leave the Tigers forward shaking his head. In the second period, he robbed Shaw in tight once again before kicking out the left pad for an eye-popping save on Chad Butcher off an odd-man rush.
As easy as it is to focus on Hoflin’s efforts keeping pucks out, it would be remiss not to mention his eye for kick-starting the offense. During the third period, the ever-confident puck-handler sent a home-run stretch pass from his own goal all the way to Jesse Zaharichuk at the opposing blueline, leading to a quality scoring chance for the home team.
To top it off, Hoflin was the backbone during the final 1:22 of regulation as the Tigers skated 6-on-4 with Zak Zborosky serving a high-sticking penalty and goaltender Nick Schneider at the bench for the extra attacker.
“I was just trying to find pucks,” Hoflin said. “Being down a man is tough, but at the same time, they’re trying to get that play and ultimately it kills some time off the clock. It makes it a little easier that way. But I was just trying to find pucks and for the most part, they were either just floating through or hitting the guy. I just had to get behind for the save.”
Outside of the miraculous performance from Hoflin, the Ice received scoring from Beattie, Cale Fleury, Zborosky and Max Patterson, while the Tigers responded with efforts from Shaw, Max Gerlach and Clayton Kirichenko.
At the other end of the rink, Schneider made 20 saves in a losing effort for Medicine Hat.
Beattie opened the scoring for the Ice with a great net drive that started from deep in Medicine Hat territory. The second-year forward held off a Tigers defender before slipping a shot through the arm of Schneider, giving the Ice a 1-0 lead only 1:03 into the first period.
Fleury doubled the advantage midway through the period, sending a power-play point shot to the back of the net with Tigers defenceman David Quenneville serving a high-sticking minor.
If two goals in the first period wasn’t good enough, Zborosky took the matter into his own hands with less than five minutes remaining in the period. The Regina native burst across the Tigers blueline, having his feet taken out and drawing a delayed penalty in the process. The speedy winger stuck with the play, retrieving the loose puck before driving the net and out-waiting Schneider before easily sliding home is 28th goal of the campaign.
Before the opening 20 minutes of play expired, the Tigers managed to find a way to the scoresheet.
As Ice defenceman Troy Murray emerged at the conclusion of a holding penalty, Tigers forward Gerlach hit Shaw at the back door for an even-strength goal to make it 3-1.
Tigers defenceman Ty Stanton thought he had found the back of the net to make it 3-2 as the buzzer sounded to end the opening period, but the goal was emphatically washed away by on-ice officials.
After Hoflin robbed Chad Butcher on a 2-on-1 opportunity in tight, the Ice turned the play the other direction and Patterson capitalized to make the most of the swing, restoring a three-goal advantage for the home team.
All it took was 2:25 for the Tigers to close the gap once again.
Gerlach found easy ice, skating practically untouched through the neutral zone before crossing the Kootenay blueline and sending a shot towards Hoflin from the top of the circle. The puck eluded the 21-year-old veteran and trickled in short side to make it 4-2 after 40 minutes of play.
The Tigers came out firing in the third period, sending 23 shots at Hoflin. Kirichenko was the lone visitors to beat the Ice goaltender with a long point shot that appeared to change direction on its way in.
The win boosts the Kootenay Ice to 11-52-6-0 with three games remaining. Despite the victory, with the shot count approaching 60, not everything was sunshine and rainbows as far as coach Pierce was concerned.
“I wasn’t happy with how we didn’t control the play [after going up 3-0],” Pierce said. “We tried to keep doing the same things and they’re going to throw everything and the kitchen sink at you. We know what this game means to [the Tigers].
“For guys that still want to learn and pay attention, there are some things in our ‘D’ zone [to work on]. Any time we were physical, we got out of our zone. Tanner Lishchynsky and some of our other ‘D’ did a really good job of that, but our other guys just want to chase people around and try to outsmart them, steal pucks and make the game easy. You’ve got to play the right way.”
With the loss, the Tigers (28-36-3-2, 61 points) missed on an opportunity to catch the Edmonton Oil Kings (28-33-6-1, 63 points). Medicine Hat has three games remaining on its regular season schedule, while Edmonton has four, including a Tuesday date in Cranbrook.
Notes: The Ice went without RW Roman Dymacek (lower body), RW Jaedon Descheneau (shoulder) and C Matt Alfaro (upper body) Saturday night… The Tigers were without D Dylan MacPherson, F Tyler Preziuso, F Caleb Fantillo and F Ryan Chyzowski… Announced attendance in Cranbrook was 1,965…
Daily Townsman Three Stars:1) #30 Wyatt Hoflin, Kootenay Ice (56 saves) 2) #25 River Beattie, Kootenay Ice (1G, 1A)”3) #16 Max Gerlach, Medicine Hat Tigers (1G, 1A)