The Kootenay Ice proved all the doubters wrong by clinching a playoff spot for the 15th straight year with a 3-1 victory over the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Tuesday night at Western Financial Place.
The Ice, which struggled mightily through the first half of the WHL season, caught fire after the Christmas break and climbed out of the basement of the Eastern Conference to seize the eighth and final playoff berth.
“It’s been a great ride and I’m looking forward to playoffs,” said Ice alternate captain Sam Reinhart.
Reinhart had a goal and an assist while goaltender Mackenzie Skapski made 24 saves to lift Kootenay to the win, which coincidentally, eliminated the Hurricanes from playoff contention.
Brock Montgomery and Jaedon Descheneau also provided scoring for the Ice, while Tyler Wong had the lone goal for the Hurricanes.
Hurricanes netminder Ty Rimmer made 34 stops in defeat.
Hudson Elynuik, a 15-year-old forward who was called up from Midget AAA in Alberta, found himself playing alongside Luke Philp and Montgomery and earned his first career WHL point with an assist on his linemate’s goal.
While the whole team knew the implications of what a win would mean, it was also a nice way to respond after a pair of road losses in the U.S. and snap a three-game skid.
“It was really good to come back and play a really all-around game against this team in a really key game for us to clinch a spot, so I’m really proud of all the guys and everyone really stepped up,” said Reinhart.
Head coach Ryan McGill said the team knew they had to play better following two losses to the Tri-City Americans and Spokane Chiefs last weekend.
“We really needed to focus on play away from the puck, and then puck recoveries with that, and I thought our guys did a way better job of that tonight,” said McGill. “When they scored the first goal, obviously, that was early, but I thought our guys did a good job of just playing the game and our powerplay scored a big goal for us tonight.”
Lethbridge opened the scoring in the first period, when Tyler Wong slipped a rebound underneath Skapski to take an early lead six minutes into the game.
Collin Shirley and Sam Reinhart nearly scored on an odd man rush a few minutes later, however, it was Descheneau who pulled it even, toe-dragging the puck across the blue line and firing it blocker side on Rimmer.
The Ice took over the game in the second period, scoring a pair of goals to take a two-goal lead.
Montgomery found the back of the net for the 31st time this season, capitalizing on his own rebound after getting fed while drifting in all alone from the high slot.
Elynuik got his first career WHL point with an assist on the play.
Eight minutes later, Reinhart scooped up a puck that bounced off Rimmer and fired it home on the powerplay for a two-goal lead.
“Right from that point, we really took over the game and were really able to control the puck and not give them too many opportunities, and when they did get an odd one, Skapski was there to make key saves for us,” Reinhart said.
Lethbridge did get a couple scoring chances throughout the middle frame, however, Skapski stood tall, stopping two breakaways from Reid Duke and Jamal Watson, while robbing Wong by flashing the leather on what seemed like a sure goal on a Hurricanes powerplay.
Rimmer had a couple lucky breaks to keep the game within reach for the ‘Canes. A Jagger Dirk shot snuck through the five-hole but deflected wide, while a sprawling pounce on a puck just outside the crease prevented Montgomery from getting another goal on the scoreboard.
It was a scoreless final period, however, Kootenay had opportunities to do more damage with a few power plays. The Hurricanes were given a chance with the man-advantage late in the game, but the Ice made a crucial penalty kill to hold their opponents at bay.
Kootenay heads to Lethbridge on Wednesday night to close out the regular season series. The Ice wrap up their season with another home-and-home matchup with the Calgary Hitmen on the weekend.