Heading into the holiday break on a 12-game losing streak isn’t exactly what Kootenay Ice head coach Luke Pierce was hoping for.
The long skid for the Ice was extended this past weekend, as the Red Deer Rebels held on for a 5-4 win Friday before the Edmonton Oil Kings claimed a 5-2 triumph Saturday night.
“We really want to focus on what our effort was like Friday at times,” Pierce said Sunday afternoon. “We never quit there in the end of it and I liked our start of the game.
“We showed we can play within the game against a real good hockey team. Both games against Red Deer this week are what we want to build off of and kind of put that Edmonton game behind us.”
Rookie Austin Gray opened the scoring Friday with a laser release that cruised over the shoulder of Rebels goaltender Rylan Toth. The marker goes into the books as the first-career WHL goal for Gray and came 13:23 into the first period.
From there, the Rebels took a 2-1 lead in the second period after Ivan Nikolishin and Conner Bleackley recorded back-to-back tallies.
Veteran Matt Alfaro drew the Ice even with a power-play goal late in the second period.
With less than five minutes remaining in the middle period, Ice defenceman Cale Fleury stepped up to deliver a punishing check on Rebels overage forward Presten Kopeck at centre ice.
The veteran Kopeck went down in a head and remained down for an extended period before being helped off the ice. Fleury was handed a five-minute major and game misconduct for checking to the head, handing the hosts an extended man advantage.
The Rebels converted twice on the extended power play, with defenceman Colton Bobyk cashing in with only 15 seconds to go in the second period, giving his team a 3-2 edge after 40 minutes.
Rebels forward Evan Polei doubled his team’s advantage 1:51 into the third period, converting for the second time on the five-minute power play.
Rebels captain Wyatt Johnson gave his team a commanding 5-2 lead with a solo short-handed effort less than five minutes after Polei’s power-play tally.
Shortly after it looked as though Polei tallied his second of the night, only to have the goal called off after a lengthy review that determined the 19-year-old native of Wetaskawin, Alta., had directed the puck in with a distinct kicking motion.
Rather than falling behind 6-2, the Ice found themselves still within range of the Rebels and soon the comeback was on.
Ice rookie Jared Legien pulled the visitors within two. Carrying the puck low into Red Deer territory, the native of Pilot Butte, Sask., put a rather harmless looking shot towards Toth from a band angle, finding a hole for his second goal of the season.
“Jared hadn’t played a lot in that game,” Pierce said. “Going with 10 forwards, it’s tough to get him into the rotation. But he sparked us. We were a pretty deflated group at 5-2. Even your veteran guys, your leaders — at times — need a spark from other places. We got that from Jared and I thought our team’s response after that was outstanding.
“It taught us some lessons that you’re never out of a game. Sometimes you need different people to step up.”
Only 94 seconds after Legien’s tally, veteran Zak Zborosky sniped another power-play goal past Toth to make it a 5-4 hockey game.
Pierce pulled Hoflin for an extra attacker with nearly two minutes remaining in regulation. Skating 6-on-5, the Ice controlled the play and maintained extended offensive-zone time, creating a number of quality scoring opportunities.
Despite the pressure, the Ice were unable to find the equalizer as the Rebels held on for the win.
Saturday’s contest in Edmonton pretty much went wrong for the Ice right from the opening puck drop.
“I don’t think our leaders had a great night,” Pierce said of Saturday’s loss to the Oil Kings. “When your best players aren’t your best players, it’s tough to win.”
The Oil Kings stormed out to a commanding 4-0 lead by the 13:28 mark of the second period, with defenceman Aaron Irving opening the scoring in the first period.
Brett Pollock scored twice, including a shorthanded marker, and Lane Bauer added a power-play goal in the second period to give the Oil Kings all the offense they needed.
Ice defenceman Jason Wenzel gave his team a spark with a goal on the man advantage late in the second period but it wasn’t enough to ignite a comeback like Friday’s in Red Deer.
“We got a spark from Jason Wenzel on the power play on a real nice play from, essentially, an all-rookie power-play unit,” Pierce said. “So we’re starting to get some contributions from other people to ignite our team. That’s going to be key for us.”
Sherwood Park native Jesse Zaharichuk found a way to the scoresheet midway through the third period to make a 4-2 game, but Brandon Baddock put the visitors away for good when he registered a power-play goal — Edmonton’s third of the night — late in regulation.
Next up, the Ice (6-28-2-0) host the Calgary Hitmen (22-13-1-1) Sunday, Dec. 27 (4 p.m.) at Western Financial Place.
“It’s key right now for all of us,” Pierce said of the holiday break. “You need a bit of a mental break. You need a physical break. But again, what you do with your beak can determine how your second half will go. It’s no different than what you do with the opportunity that’s there when there are a lot of injuries. Do you take advantage of it and work harder and pay more attention to detail and have success? Or what?
“What are you doing on the break? Are you taking care of yourself and getting yourself ready to go? The guys who have been overworked and overused — are you making sure you’re getting the proper rest? You’ve got to try and capitalize on it as best you can.”
Watch for a Kootenay Ice mid-season review in the Townsman later this week.