For the second consecutive night, the Kootenay Ice did all they could to stand in the way of a team fighting for a playoff position. And for the second consecutive night, goaltender Wyatt Hoflin made more than 50 saves.
Tuesday night at Western Financial Place, the 21-year-old native of Spruce Grove, Alta., was absolutely perfect, turning aside all 51 shots sent his way en route to a 2-0 shutout victory over the Edmonton Oil Kings.
“He’s phenomenal, he’s calm in the net and I’m kind of used to it,” said Ice alternate captain Matt Alfaro, regarding Hoflin. “He had one of these performances last year, I think it was 50 saves in Medicine Hat. I’ve seen it before, but there’s no words, really. He’s phenomenal.
“You don’t really know what he’s going to do. Sometimes he’ll come out in the butterfly, sometimes he slides at you with one knee, sometimes in practice he’ll dive at you or stack the pads. He’s not your normal goalie, but it works.”
After turning aside an astounding 56 shots in a 4-3 win over the Medicine Hat Tigers Saturday night, it might not have been surprising to see Hoflin with the night off in favour of backup Declan Hobbs.
According to Kootenay Ice head coach Luke Pierce, that was never in the cards.
“He deserves to play out the stretch,” Pierce said Tuesday. “For everything he has done for this organization, this community, for the franchise and for this team this year. He’s been a vital piece. He deserves it.
“[Hoflin] takes care of himself so well. I’m not too worried about his fatigue. I might give him the day off [Wednesday]. He might have earned that.”
In total, Hoflin has turned aside an awe-inspiring 107 of the 110 shots sent his way over his past two appearances, good enough for a fantastic .973 save percentage.
“I’m not good at most sports, but I’ve kind of found one I’m good at right now,” Hoflin said with a smile after collecting his sixth-career shutout.
“Last game I played good, but I was still pretty unhappy with the three goals that went in. I was trying to be better tonight and unfortunately for them, I was better tonight and it was kind of the difference in the hockey game.”
On the other side of Hoflin’s miraculous 51-save shutout effort, the Ice received scoring from captain Tanner Lishchynsky and Alfaro.
At the other end of the rink, Cranbrook native Payton Lee did everything possible to give the Oil Kings a chance, turning aside 24 shots. But with no offense to back him, there wasn’t much more the veteran goaltender could do.
While Hoflin was the saving grace for his team Saturday night, Tuesday’s contest with the Oil Kings provided a much different narrative as a competitive Kootenay Ice squad went toe-to-toe with the visitors through 40 minutes, before capitalizing on special teams and effectively protecting a lead over the final 20 minutes.
Lishchynsky broke the scoreless tie only 1:41 into the third period with a power-play effort for his eighth goal of the season.
Sneaking down into the slot, the 21-year-old native of Saskatoon jumped on a rebound and popped the loose puck past Lee for a 1-0 lead
From there, most fingers in Western Financial Place were likely chewed down to the bone.
Hoflin saved some of his best work for the final period after his captain provided a one-goal edge.
Oil Kings defenceman Brayden Gorda jumped into the rush, landing a beautiful pass in prime scoring position in the Kootenay slot. Wasting no time, the 16-year-old Edmonton native fired in at Hoflin, who powered to the top of his crease with a strong right-to-left push, robbing the rookie blueliner of a great scoring opportunity.
That save earned a raucous response from the 1,897 in attendance at Western Financial Place. But Hoflin wasn’t finished.
Moments later, Hoflin left Oil Kings centre Lane Bauer asking the hockey gods why they had forsaken him.
Off an odd-man rush, the left-shooting Bauer took a cross-ice pass and immediately redirected the rubber towards the Ice cage. Somehow, without splitting himself in two, Hoflin stretched left-to-right, knocking the puck out of the air with his blocker arm.
While Bauer looked to the sky, fans in attendance looked to the ground as they scooped their jaws off the floor.
With energy buzzing through the building, the big unit for the Ice got to work as they battled for their goaltender, something that wasn’t necessarily visible across the board in Saturday’s win over the Tigers.
“You take the lessons and we talked about this in the dressing room after — with a 2-0 lead in the final two minutes, you see Matt Alfaro, Zak Zborosky, Cale Fleury, Tanner Lishchynsky, Austin Wellsby… you knew how hard they wanted to preserve the shutout for their goaltender,” Pierce said. “That’s the way we need to play for every teammate that we have from start to finish. Some of the blocks and sacrifices that guys made…that’s what we need. It’s a great learning lesson for some of our younger guys on how hard it is to win in this league and some of the things you have to do.”
On a set play, Zborosky sent a gorgeous cross-crease feed to Alfaro, who banged it home for his 20th goal of the season, in what was the 200th game of his WHL career.
“It’s something that four years ago, I didn’t think I’d accomplish,” Alfaro said of hitting 200 career games. “I’ve earned it and worked hard through summers to improve.
“[The goal] was a play we worked on in practice off the neutral-zone draw off the offside. It was a rim in and [Austin] Wellsby was supposed to bump it back. We got in and I thought Zak should have scored on the first play, but it worked out. I really just drove the net, put my stick on the ice and Zborosky hit me.”
After that, the Ice went into lockdown mode. Hoflin continued to rack up the saves, but the team in front of him did a good job of limiting the quality of opportunities, with many pucks fired in from outside the dots and around the perimeter.
Fleury laid out to block a heavy shot from an Oil Kings rearguard, doing everything in his power to leave it all on the ice in support of his goaltender.
As time wound down, fans stood and applauded in appreciation of the gutsy effort put forth by a young and embattled Kootenay Ice squad that, once again, did not quit.
With Lee at the bench for the extra attacker late in the contest, Hoflin wasn’t satisfied going home with just the shutout.
Collecting the biscuit at the side of his net and known for his savvy puck-handling abilities, the veteran keeper turned and fired towards the empty Edmonton net.
If there could have been a fairy-tale ending to Tuesday’s festivities, a goal from Wyatt Hoflin to ice the win would have been it.
Unfortunately for Hoflin, there was an Oil King just inside the Kootenay blueline to get in the way and dash that dream. Still, the momentary excitement was exhilarating.
The win goes into the books as the second-consecutive victory for the Ice (12-52-6-0), while the loss left the Oil Kings (29-34-6-1) vulnerable and only two points ahead of the Tigers (29-36-3-2) for the final playoff spot in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
Both teams have two games remaining on the slate. The Oil Kings wrap the season in a home-and-home series against the Red Deer Rebels (43-24-1-2), while the Tigers take on the division-leading Lethbridge Hurricanes (45-23-1-1) in their own home-and-home to close the campaign.
The Ice finish the season in a home-and-home battle with the rival Calgary Hitmen (40-26-2-2), with the last outing at Western Financial Place slated for Friday at 7 p.m.
Notes: The Ice went without the services of RW Roman Dymacek (lower body), RW Jaedon Descheneau (shoulder) and LW Jared Legien… The Oil Kings scratched G Patrick Dea (lower body), G Alec Dillon (lower body), F Kobe Mohr (upper body), F Kole Gable (upper body) and D Jordan Dawson.
Tuesday, March 15
Edmonton Oil Kings 0 at Kootenay Ice 2
First Period – No scoring
Second Period – No scoring
Third Period1. KTN – T. Lishchynsky, (8) (Z. Zborosky, M. Alfaro), 1:41 (PP)2. KTN – M. Alfaro, (20) (Z. Zborosky, T. Lishchynsky), 11:04
Shots 1 2 3 TEdmonton Oil Kings 12 22 17 51Kootenay Ice 13 7 6 26
Goaltenders Saves Mins SV%EDM – Payton Lee 24/26 57:36 0.923KTN – Wyatt Hoflin 51/41 60:00 1.000
Power playsEdmonton Oil Kings 0/2 (00.0%)Kootenay Ice 1/3 (33.3%)
Daily Townsman Three Stars1) G Wyatt Hoflin, Kootenay Ice (51 saves, shutout);2) C Matt Alfaro, Kootenay Ice (1G, 1A);3) D Tanner Lishchynsky, Kootenay Ice (1G, 1A)
Attendance: 1,897 (Western Financial Place)